Can Corn be Engineered to Reduce its Own Pollution?

Corn ethanol is a tricky subject, but what if you could teach corn to produce its own fertilizer from the air around it? If you could, you would vastly reduce the amount of petroleum-based fertilizer needed to grow it and therefore make it much more environmentally sound.

There are plenty who would rather we just didn’t make ethanol from corn at all due to a whole host of reasons including the food vs. fuel debate and questionable environment benefits when compared with gasoline. There are also plenty who challenge those assertions and say that making ethanol from corn has only a very tiny affect on food prices and that almost all corn grown for ethanol clearly shows a positive environmental benefit compared to gasoline.

Nowadays you can even find many peer-reviewed scientific studies that “prove” both camps are right. Go figure.

Recently the US Environmental Protection Agency introduced its new Renewable Fuel Standard (known as RFS2) which attempts to address some of the above arguments by requiring a positive environmental benefit from all types of ethanol—meaning at least a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when compared to gasoline. This will become of increasing importance as the proportion of ethanol in the US’s fuel mix increases dramatically from todays 11 billion gallons per year to a regulatorily required 36 billion gallons per year in 2022.

However, one of the most important factors in determining whether or not corn ethanol has a reduction in GHGs is related to how the corn itself is grown. Corn has a shallow root system and requires a lot of fertilizer to achieve high yields—important when you’re trying to minimize the amount of land used to grow it. All industrial fertilizer is made using what’s called the Haber Process (read the section at the end, “Haber Factoids,” for some interesting tidbits), which essentially uses petroleum to take the nitrogen from the atmosphere and “fix” it into a compound that can be applied to plants as a fertilizer. You can clearly see how this might make growing corn less environmentally beneficial than it could be. If you could get rid of the need for fertilizer, not only could you eliminate a large portion GHG inputs, you could also drastically reduce water pollution.

To address this issue, a major group of scientific collaborators from around the globe with $2 million of funding from US and British institutions is delving into the new field of “synthetic biology” to try and teach corn to “fix” its own nitrogen from the air around it. Many types of plants already have the capability to do this through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. The researchers think they can engineer corn to do the same thing.

Sounds pretty far out there, no? With all the advances in the last decade in our understanding of genetics, scientists now have a much clearer understanding of how to reprogram a plant to do what you want it to do. “We now understand enough about how genes work and how proteins are produced that we can actually think about reprogramming how living cells work,” said Kaustubh Bhalerao, an assistant professor in U of I’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in a statement. “On one hand, it sounds intimidating. But on the other hand, there are tremendous benefits that may be possible by doing this.”

Not only is their research applicable to making large advances in growing corn, it can be applied to a whole host of other living things with the intention of improving living conditions for billions around the globe. “This type of technology allows us to think about interesting, novel solutions to major concerns, such as how we can feed more people, or how we can produce more drinking water,” added Bhalerao. “Synthetic biology is an entirely new discipline. To compare it with electronics, where it’s drawing a lot of its ideas and terminology from, we are at the stage of developing the transistor. We cannot foresee what the Internet of this technology is going to look like.”

Haber Factoids

Fritz Haber, for whom the Haber Process is named, was a fervent Nazi and his process was coopted to make explosives by the Nazi’s during WWI and WWII. Haber was also instrumental in developing and deploying the first chemical warfare agents on the battelfied during WWI, which earned him the title of the “father of chemical warfare.” In fact, his wife, who was also a chemist, was so opposed to his use of chemical weapons that she reportedly killed herself with some of his chemicals in their garden. Interestingly enough, Haber also won a Nobel prize for his fertilizer efforts even after his well-known development of chemical weapons. As is so often the case in our world, a major figure in human evolution and cultural development was just as evil as he was good.

Source: EurekAlert!

Image Credit: BrianForbes37‘s Flickr Photostream. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.