Doubling Down for Legumes

Most research these days is much too big for any one scientist – or even one institution – to undertake alone. And in cases where the benefits of the findings can help the entire world feed its burgeoning population, it’s nice to see everyone chipping in.

If you haven’t heard, the world recently hit 7 billion residents and is expected to hit up to 10.5 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. In order to keep the supply coming in, we’ve got to figure out bigger and more efficient means of creating our food supply. That leads me to one word – fertilizer.

More specifically, nitrogen. The gas is necessary for the quick growth of plants and is often the base of synthetic fertilizers sprayed and dumped on the fields. Of course, if there were a way to get more fertilizer in the ground in a natural way, it’d make everybody’s job easier and help keep the pollution levels to a minimum. Naturally, legumes are coming to the rescue.

Those delicious plants that supply most of the world’s protein include peanuts, soy beans, peas and pretty much anything else that comes in a pod are also necessary for nitrogen fixation, the process by which plants take nitrogen out of the air and put it into the soil in a usable form. They can’t do it on their own, though. They rely on a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the ground. The bacteria transform the nitrogen and the plants feed them water and sugar.

Now, in a gigantic collaboration including 124 authors at 31 institutions in 8 countries around the world, lead institution the University of Minnesota has uncovered how the legumes do it. They’ve doubled their genome.

Shortly after the giant asteroid wiped out most life on earth, legumes somehow managed to double their genome and have twice as many of every gene as before. This allowed some genes to mutate into new roles while the extra copy was still around to handle its original job. One gene in particular proved to be most useful.

One version of the copy helps nitrogen-fixing bacteria infect the roots of the legume and enter into symbiosis with the plant. The other helps the plant’s roots interact with soil fungi that supply the plants with minerals. They both help form a necessary symbiosis, but they’ve evolved from the same gene to help different species.

And it’s a good thing, too, or else we might all be stuck eating corn. Plus, what would the world be without peanut butter?

In the end, understanding how these genes work in order to transfer nitrogen from the air to the ground will allow scientists to help the process along. The next step is to innovate some ways to make the process even better. Because with more nitrogen comes more plants.

And we could all use some more lentils.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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