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Crop researchers try to genetically engineer a symbiosis

Researchers in the United Kingdom are to receive millions in funding from Bill Gates to see whether plants can be tweaked to make their own fertilizers.

Backed by a grant from the Gates Foundation, a team at the John Innes Centre in Norwich will try to create genetically modified (GM) cereal crops that can recruit bacteria to help them grow.

The five-year project will cost £6.4 million (US$10 million) and will attempt to build a symbiotic relationship between maize (corn) and bacteria that fix nitrogen into the soil. In many areas, farmers use nitrogen fertilizers to increase their crop yields. Engineering a plant that could, in effect, produce its own fertilizer could both save farmers a significant amount of money and help to reduce the environmental damage from fertilizers ending up as pollutants in water ways.

“We have developed a pretty good understanding of how legumes such as peas and beans evolved the ability to recruit soil bacteria to access the nitrogen they need,” said Giles Oldroyd, a plant scientist at the centre, in a statement. “Even the most primitive symbiotic relationship with bacteria benefited the plant, and this is where we hope to start in cereals.”

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