The Friesen lab’s first NSF award was announced today and picked up by the MSU news. We will be collaborating with a team at Imperial College London led by Bill Rutherford and Martin Buck, with Research Fellow James Murray playing a major role. The project emerged from an “Ideas Lab” in December 2012 that brought together scientists from the US and UK to formulate projects that have the potential to transform how we supply crops with nitrogen. Maren and Bill were paired as “buddies” during the Ideas Lab, and the conversations went from there!
The goal of the project will be to isolate and characterize organisms that may have enzyme systems that can fix atmospheric nitrogen in the presence of oxygen, a talent that is lacking in conventional nitrogenase enzymes (such as those contained by the rhizobia that symbiose with legumes). We are especially excited about the potential downstream applications that such an enzyme system would enable, including plants that can fix nitrogen without bacterial partners. Other projects funded by this program seek to engineer nitrogen-fixing organelles (“nitroplasts”), synthetic symbioses between grasses and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and nitrogen-fixing systems inside oxygenic cyanobacteria.
I have long wondered why more plants don’t associate with nitrogen-fixing symbionts, as well as why rhizobia haven’t evolved to be transmitted from parent to offspring. Perhaps these projects will give an experimental glimpse into these questions.