Microbes can be a sustainable alternative to chemical fertilizers – MIT study

Young shoots of corn with roots.

Chemists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are researching a more sustainable form of fertilization utilizing bacteria. This approach could potentially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from chemical fertilizer production. By harnessing bacteria capable of converting nitrogen gas into ammonia, MIT chemists aim to provide an eco-friendly nutrient source for crops, which could also enhance soil regeneration and offer protection against pests.

The challenge with deploying these beneficial microbes on a large scale lies in their sensitivity to heat and humidity, complicating their manufacture and distribution to farms. Addressing this issue, MIT’s chemical engineers have developed a novel metal-organic coating that shields bacterial cells from environmental damage, thereby preserving their growth and functional capabilities. This breakthrough could significantly simplify the process for farmers to utilize microbes as a fertilizer alternative.

The study, led by Ariel Furst, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, demonstrates that the coated bacteria not only survive the drying process but can also withstand temperatures up to 132°F without the need for cold storage. This makes the microbes a more cost-effective and accessible option for agricultural use. The research, published in the scientific journal JACS Au, highlights the potential of these coated bacteria to improve the germination rate of seeds for various crops, including corn and bok choy, by creating a protective “suit of armor” around the microbes.

The traditional production of chemical fertilizers involves the Haber-Bosch process, which significantly contributes to carbon emissions and can deplete soil nutrients over time. In contrast, nitrogen-fixing bacteria offer a promising solution by supporting regenerative agriculture practices that aim to maintain soil health through natural means. Despite the benefits, the widespread adoption of microbial fertilizers has been limited due to the logistical challenges associated with transporting and applying these sensitive organisms to fields.

Furst’s creation of a metal-phenol network (MPN) coating addresses these challenges by using food-grade compounds recognized for their safety and protective qualities. The successful encapsulation of Pseudomonas chlororaphis, a nitrogen-fixing bacterium, with this coating demonstrates a significant advancement in making microbial fertilizers a practical and effective tool for regenerative agriculture.

This innovative approach not only promises to reduce the environmental impact of fertilizer production but also aims to make sustainable farming practices more accessible to a broader range of farmers. To prove the efficiency of her approach, Ariel Furst has founded a startup, Seia Bio, which is poised to commercialize the technology she has developed, potentially revolutionizing the crop nutrition industry.

Add Fertilizer Daily to your followed sources to get market news first  

Enjoyed the story?

Once a week, our subscribers get their hands first on hottest fertilizer and agriculture news. Don’t miss it!