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Global research could save Fen wetlands and address world food security

A global research programme coordinated from Cambridge that could help address the world’s looming food security crisis and protect sensitive natural ecosystems like the Fens and Norfolk Broads will be the topic of a free public talk this Tuesday evening as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

Dr Giles Oldroyd leads the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project, Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA), which aims to double crop yields for small-holder farmers in Africa without the use of expensive artificial fertilisers. To do this, Dr Oldroyd coordinates 12 research teams from across the world who are working together to transfer the natural nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes like peas into cereal crops.

If successful, this could also reduce the world’s overall use of nitrogen fertilisers, which contribute significantly to global warming gases and environmental pollution and have benefits for the iconic Fenlands and Norfolk Broads that sit side-by-side with intensive agriculture.

Dr Oldroyd said: “Low lying water based nature reserves in the Fenlands and Norfolk Broads, such as Wicken Fen, are heavily impacted by agricultural nutrient runoff. These ecosystems are naturally low in nutrients and this is essential for these sites to support biodiversity, as such these habitats are very sensitive to agricultural nutrient run-off, but it’s very difficult to keep it out.”

One of the major factors that limits crop growth is nitrogen. Despite nitrogen making up almost 80% of the air that we breathe, none of this is available to our cereal crops, which is why the nitrogen fertiliser industry is such big business.

However, legume plants like peas and beans, have come up with a clever solution to capture this atmospheric nitrogen by teaming up with bacteria. Dr Oldroyd said: “Legume plants and bacteria form beneficial relationships, with the plant providing ‘bed and board’ to the bacteria, in return for nitrogen-fixation. This process in legumes has utilised many genetic components that evolved to support a much more ancient association with beneficial fungi, that is already present in cereal crops. We are identifying what genes are specifically involved in nitrogen-fixation in legumes and using these in combination with the native gene networks already present in cereals to create cereal crops that can fix their own fertiliser.”

Dr Oldroyd’s talk will be held at 7pm Tuesday 12th March at the Sainsbury Laboratory auditorium located in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden (entrance at 47 Bateman St). More details can be found here.