College of Science

Chang receives $100K to develop better inoculant for crops

Woo-Suk Chang, an assistant professor in biology, will receive $100,000 from Novozymes Biologicals, Inc., a biotechnology company, to study symbiotic nitrogen fixation and discover a way to deliver nitrogen through a better inoculant in crops (i.e., soybeans) which is more efficient and better for the environment.

Novozymes, with headquarters in Denmark, is the largest industrial enzyme production company in the world. Chang’s research has been supported by the company since 2009. The newest round of support will fund $100,000 for two-years starting in March 2014.

“The project’s goal is to develop a more tolerant inoculant,” Chang said. “Hopefully we will find a more environmentally friendly and tolerant inoculant so that farmers can use it more effectively.”

Inoculants are microorganisms which are added to crops to promote plant health. Legumes - which include soybeans, peas, beans, peanuts, lentils and alfalfa - grow best and produce more yield if inoculated with special soil bacteria, called Rhizobia, which form nodules on the roots of the plant. Within nodules, bacteria become bacteroids which are responsible for "fixing" the nitrogen into a form (e.g., ammonia) available to the plant. Ultimately, symbiotic bacteria help the plant to grow and compete with other plants. When the plant dies, some fixed nitrogen is released, making it available to other plants and helping to fertilize the soil Ammonium nitrate is a chemical
compound which is commonly used in agriculture as a high-nitrogen fertilizer. The cost of ammonium nitrate has risen dramatically in recent years, from $194 per ton in 2000 to $544 per ton in 2013 based on the USDA Economic Research Service.

Nitrogen fertilizers can create environmental problems, however. Fertilizer runoff finds its way into creeks and streams, and eventually into rivers and oceans. Overuse of chemical fertilizers is a key factor in the increase of hypoxia along the U.S. Gulf Coast, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia is a depletion of oxygen in the water due to pollution or increased presence of plant nutrients such as nitrogen. This oxygen loss can create “dead zones” in the water where there isn’t enough oxygen for fish to breathe.

“A symbiotic way to fix nitrogen is needed because this supplies legumes with nitrogen, it provides just the right amount of nitrogen at the right time, and it can significantly decrease spending on nitrogen-containing fertilizers for subsequent crops,” Chang said.

Posted February 24, 2014