The UPV grows laboratory wheat to mitigate the harmful effect of fertilizers

Wheat is one of the crops that sustains world food. Its demand and production have increased in the last four years without taking into account the consequences derived from the war in Ukraine, a country that was baptized long ago as ‘the granary of Europe’. It is estimated that around the world 250 million hectares are dedicated to planting this cereal and it is unthinkable to maintain this high quality production of grain without applying fertilizers, especially nitrogenous ones, those in whose composition nitrogen is present.

This is an essential nutrient for all organisms, very abundant in nature, constituting 78% of the atmosphere. It is applied in agriculture in ammoniacal or nitric form, but not all the ammonium and nitrate that is provided is absorbed by the crops. The soil nitrification process turns ammonium into nitrate, and as it is very soluble in water, it easily reaches aquifers and rivers and seas, and can cause eutrophication, the pollution that the Mar Menor is suffering, due to the excess nutrients that causes organisms to grow in abundance and deplete oxygen. Some of the nitrogen can be emitted into the atmosphere in the form of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas much more powerful than CO2.

study on wheat

It is unthinkable to maintain this high production of grain quality without the application of fertilizers.

Due to the continuous growth of the population and the high demand for wheat, fertilizers are needed to achieve a highly productive agriculture, but at the same time it becomes even more essential to mitigate the harmful effects they produce on the environment. “Without nitrogen fertilization, crop production per hectare would drop a lot. This would make them unprofitable for the farmer and would also cause a global supply problem. On the other hand, the environmental impact derived from poor fertilization management must be minimized. To do this, the type of fertilizer, the dose, its time of application and soil management must be adapted, favoring minimum tillage, together with the selection of more efficient varieties,” explains Professor of Plant Physiology Carmen González Murua.

She is the main researcher of the NUMAPS group of the UPV, (Soil and Plant Nutrition Management), which has been working on nitrification inhibitors and ammonium assimilation mechanisms in plants for two decades. Together with a research group from Mexico, CIMMYT, and another from Japan, JIRCAS, they have achieved that high-yielding wheats have the ability to inhibit soil nitrification, making the crop more efficient in taking up nitrogen “without harm the rest of the living beings that coexist in that habitat.

an award-winning work

They have achieved it in the laboratory by taking advantage of the characteristics of producing molecules that are capable of inhibiting soil nitrification (BNI) present in sorghum and rice, and also in other low-productive plant species, specifically Leymus racemosus, known as wild rye. Through ten crosses, over ten generations, with various elite wheats, capable of producing 10,000 kilos per hectare, they managed to transfer that capacity to current varieties.

This, which is being studied for other types of crops, including corn, allows greater use of the fertilizer for the plant. “It would also have a lower environmental impact on aquifers, it would mean a decrease in gaseous emissions into the atmosphere and it would improve crop productivity, while also having repercussions on the health of the soil,” González Murua points out. The investigation has earned them the Cozzarelli Award.