Saturday 18 October 2014

More productive crops

There are 7-billion-and-rising of us on the planet and 800 million of them go to bed hungry almost every night. Each year more than 2 million children die because they didn't have enough to eat. Ouch! What to do? The remaining wilderness is wild because it is never going to be sustainably productive for growing food for people, so we may as well give refuge to pandas Ailuropoda melanoleuca and Indian lions Panthera leo persica; sorry, it's too late for the quagga Equus quagga quagga. Believe me, if an honest third world politician has to choose between feeding elephants Loxodonta africana or L. cyclotis or feeding constituents, the voters will win every time. The King of Brobdingnag offered another solution to Gulliver during his travels "And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

Niall Carson - AP
Three young women from Kinsale in County Cork have, like Othello (and Charles Haughey) "done the state some service" in this regard. Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow [L - going a little weak at the knees] have just been named as three of the 25 most influential teenagers by Time magazine for their work. This (cost-neutral) tribute can be added to the [50] Grand prize at the Google Science Fair last month, the biology  EU Young Scientist Prize (€7k) a year before that and the launch of their science-celeb career winning the BT Young Scientist Competition back in January 2013, with their project "A statistical investigation of the effects of diazotroph bacteria on plant germination".  Diazotroph?  What it says on the tin - they metabolise (trophein Gk: to nourish) di-Nitrogen (Gk: azote). Most of the press coverage has treated Diazotroph as a species but it's rather a chemical toolkit shared by a variety of different microbes. The atmosphere is 78% full of di-Nitrogen N2 but the triple bond between the two Ns is so remarkably strong that this reserve is of no use for the living world. All living things need nitrogen to make the amino (NH2) acids that are the building blocks for proteins. No proteins, no life as we know it. Diazotrophs are classes of bacteria which can "fix" nitrogen with a nifty enzyme called nitrogenase.  I've had occasion to criticise the idea that following the advice of the King of B is an unqualified good. I've also complained about the poor quality of statistical analysis in most of the teen science projects that come across my sights at The Institute. Things are clearly fixed better down in the Kinsale Community School because you can't pull the wool over the eyes of National, European and World judges of science.

It's also interesting that the girls have looked a little sideways at the effects of N-fixers on plants. The usual take is to measure the productivity of plants in the presence of diazotrophs because nitrogen-fixing allows more amino-acids to be manufactured; which means that more protein can be made; which means that plants can grow more and/or grow more protein. One interesting sideline is that the enzyme nitrogenase requires minority elements molybdenum or vanadium to function properly, in the same way as haemoglobin requires an iron atom at its active site. Some soils are grossly deficient in either or both of these elements and so have very low productivity. The brute force approach is to lash on more nitrogen fertiliser . . . which will run off into water-courses and  The elegant solution is to sprinkle a tiny quantity of molybdenum on the earth and let the diazotrophs do the heavy-lifting. What the Kinsale Three have shown is that another important property - germination - is also enhanced by the action of these bacteria.

I hope they enjoy their ten day trip to the Galapagos and make good use of their $50,000 Google scholarship fund. We need such smart and creative young people in science, who will stay the course and become Women in Science rather than drift off into a life of affluence and foreign travel.

No comments:

Post a Comment