Nitrogen-efficient crops: The holy grail of agricultural biotech

Genetic Literacy Project

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Picture yourself walking down the narrow lanes of a poplar plantation in Minnesota surrounded by the slender, fast-growing trees farmed around the globe to make everything from paper to plywood to biofuels. Consider the resources it takes to develop a plot like this, particularly nitrogen, one of the 13 mineral nutrients necessary for plant growth. All plants need nitrogen to grow, but poplars are particularly sensitive to nitrogen-deficient soils. One acre can easily use hundreds of pounds of nitrogen fertilizer to achieve maximum yield.

Enter Arcadia Biosciences, which recently teamed with FuturaGrene, a genetics firm specializing in forestry and biofuels to developed nitrogen use efficient (NUE) poplar and eucalyptus trees. In theory, the poplars they develop would need as much as 50% less nitrogen than their non-NUE counterparts. If a plant’s metabolism is an engine, then nitrogen is its fuel. Nitrogen-efficient plants have the potential to increase yields and reduce costs for farmers all while reducing environmental harm: a win-win-win.

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