GM research on nitrogen fixation a waste of money (30/6/2006)

excellent press srelease

Soil Association response to John Innes Centre research on nitrogen fixation
27 June 2006

The Soil Association warns that research findings publicised tomorrow (28/6/06) by the John Innes Centre (JIC) concerning the control of nitrogen fixation in leguminous plants by genetic manipulation confirms that genetic engineering research is generally a costly, time-consuming and unrealistic way of spending public funds to achieve very little. The Soil Association believes the researchers are seriously misleading the public about the significance of these results.

Gundula Azeez, Policy Manager at Soil Association said, "Rather than being a significant contribution to solving the problem of agriculture's dependency on fertilisers, the researchers' chances of actual success are remote and unlikely. The researchers described the results as 'an important step' towards transferring the process of nitrogen fixation from legumes to crop plants that 'may reduce global need for nitrogen fertilisers'. Yet, after years of research, they have only managed to control one small stage of a complex process and in a legume which naturally fixes nitrogen anyway and which is also apparently, 'amenable to genetic transformation'. This only highlights how far they are from identifying and managing to control and transfer the complete nitrogen fixation process to non-leguminous plants. This publicity looks like a shameless attempt to secure further funding to continue the research, rather than signalling any real potential with this result.

This scenario is typical of genetic engineering research. Such projects having been going on around the globe consuming vast amounts of public money for years, with almost nothing to show at the end of the day. Because the biological processes are so complex and poorly understood, attempts at genetic engineering usually become mired in endless problems with unpredictable biological side-effects. Even if the projects are eventually technically successful, the researchers are ignoring the fact that the inevitable problems of contamination of non-GM crops will make the growing of the GM varieties in the open environment unacceptable. Also, any viable GM crops ever eventually produced would almost certainly not have a market, as all supermarkets and most food manufacturers have non-GM policies based on the overwhelming public rejection of GM foods.

The researchers are also wasting time, money and effort by attempting to solve a problem already addressed in organic systems. Organic farming harnesses natural nitrogen fixation processes by growing legumes in rotation with crop production and livestock grazing. It has already managed to do away with the use of nitrogen fertilisers, halving the amount of energy needed to produce the same amount of food as non-organic farming.

Whilst we urgently need to move agriculture away from the use of nitrogen fertiliser, produced from fossil fuels in an energy-intensive process, contributing to climate change, this needs to be done within the next 15 years. At the rate the researchers are going, the oil will have long run out before they have a solution - if they do eventually have one.

The Soil Association urges research of the type now publicised by the JIC to be restricted in future, and funding to be diverted to more efficient, safer and more publicly acceptable approaches, such as the expansion of organic farming.

The Soil Association also strongly criticises the researchers for publicising their work the day before the study is published in Nature, which means that their claims cannot be confirmed or the implications discussed in depth. This is an unscientific and unacceptable way of releasing the results of publicly funded research."


For more information please contact Gundula Azeez, Policy Manager at Soil Association on 0117 9874560 / [email protected] or Victoria Record, Media Office Co-ordinator on 0117 9874580 / [email protected]

Press Office T: 0117 914 2448 ISDN: 0117 314 5040 Soil Association Campaigning for organic food and farming and sustainable forestry Bristol House, 40-56 Victoria Street, Bristol BS1 6BY T: 0117 314 5000 F: 0117 314 5001 www.soilassociation.org Version 261.1 | Issued27/06/2006 ...


New research may reduce global need for nitrogen fertilizers

Research published tomorrow (June 29) in the journal Nature reveals how scientists at the John Innes Centre (JIC), Norwich and Washington State University, USA have managed to trigger nodulation in legumes, a key element of the nitrogen fixing process, without the bacteria normally necessary. This is an important step towards transferring nodulation, and possibly nitrogen fixation, to non-legume crops which could reduce the need for inorganic fertilizers.

The researchers, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Royal Society and the US National Science Foundation, have used a key gene that legumes require to establish the interaction with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria to trigger the growth of root nodules, even in the absence of the bacteria.

The fixation of nitrogen by some plants is critical to maintaining the health of soil as it converts the inert atmospheric form of nitrogen into compounds usable by plants. Legumes, as used in this study, are an important group of plants as they have the ability to fix nitrogen - which they owe to a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules. Legumes are often used as a rotation crop to naturally enhance the nitrogen content of soils. Scientists have been working for a number of years to understand the symbiosis between legumes and rhizobial bacteria, with the hope that one day they can transfer this trait to crop plants, the majority of which cannot fix nitrogen themselves.

Intensive crop agriculture depends heavily on inorganic fertilisers that are often used to provide nutrients particularly nitrogen that are critical for plant growth. The production of nitrogen fertilisers requires a large amount of energy and is estimated to constitute approximately 50 per cent of the fossil fuel usage of the modern agricultural process. Inorganic fertilizers also cause environmental problems associated with leeching into our water systems.

Dr Giles Oldroyd is the research leader at JIC. He said: "We now have a good understanding of the processes required to activate nodule development. The nodule is an essential component of this nitrogen fixing interaction as it provides the conditions required for the bacteria. Nodules are normally only formed when the plant perceives the presence of the bacteria. The fact that we can induce the formation of nodules in the plant in the absence of the bacteria is an important first step in transferring this process to non-legumes. If this could be achieved we could dramatically reduce the need for inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, in turn reducing environmental pollution and energy use. However, we still have a lot of work before we can generate nodulation in non-legumes."

Professor Julia Goodfellow, Chief Executive of BBSRC, commented: "BBSRC is the principal funder of fundamental plant research in the UK and commits millions of pounds a year to furthering our understanding of basic plant biology. Such fundamental research may seem disconnected from the every day world for many people but this project shows how potentially important such science is. The findings have the potential to lead to a practical application with substantial economic impact for the UK."


The following images to accompany this story are available from the JIC and BBSRC Media Offices

* White clover: Clover is a common legume of the UK and is often used to naturally enrich agricultural soils for nitrogen.

* Pea nodules: Nodules occur on the roots of legumes, in this case pea. The nitrogen fixing bacteria live inside the cells of the nodule.

* Clover pasture: Clovers form an essential component of the UK pastures, which are used for cattle and sheep grazing. The clover provides a lot of protein to grazing animals and also supports the nitrogen content of the soil, reducing the need for fertiliser application to UK grasslands.

* Image of Dr Giles Oldroyd.

John Innes Centre
Victoria Just, Tel: 01603 255111, email:
[email protected]
BBSRC Media Office
Matt Goode, Tel: 01793 413299/07766 423 372, email: [email protected] Tracey Jewitt, Tel: 01793 414694, email: [email protected]

Notes to Editors

An ISDN studio is available for interviews at the John Innes Centre.

This research is published in Nature, June 29 2006, 'Nodulation independent of rhizobia induced by a calcium-activated kinase lacking autoinhibition'

This work was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Royal Society. Research at Washington State University Agricultural Research Center was funded by the US National Science Foundation.

Medicago truncatula (Barrel Medic or Barrel Medick) is a small legume native to the Mediterranean region. It is a low-growing clover-like plant 10-60 cm tall with trifoliate leaves, each leaflet rounded, 1-2 cm long, often with a dark spot in the centre. The flowers are yellow, produced singly or in a small inflorescence of 2-5 together; the fruit is a small spiny pod.

M. truncatula has been chosen as a model organism for legume biology. It has a small diploid genome, is self-fertile, has a rapid generation time and prolific seed production, it is also amenable to genetic transformation.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK's principal public funder of basic and strategic research across the biosciences. It is funded primarily by the Science Budget through the Government's Office of Science and Innovation. BBSRC invests over £350M pa in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports advances in the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About the John Innes Centre

The JIC, Norwich, UK is an independent, world-leading research centre in plant and microbial sciences with over 800 staff. JIC carries out high quality fundamental, strategic and applied research to understand how plants and microbes work at the molecular, cellular and genetic levels. The JIC also trains scientists and students, collaborates with many other research laboratories and communicates its science to end-users and the general public. The JIC is grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. http://www.jic.ac.uk

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