Soil researchers discover a microbe of global agricultural significance

As reported by Scientist Live, microbiologists at the University of Aberdeen have shed new light on the understanding of how ammonia-based fertilisers are inactivated by microorganisms in soil.

Billions of pounds are spent annually on nitrogen fertilisers to support crop production to feed the world’s population. Ammonia-oxidising’ microbes rapidly convert ammonia to nitrate, which is washed out of the soil before it reaches crops for which it is intended. This leads to losses to farmers estimated at over $15 billion per year and nitrate-polluted drinking water.

Over the past hundred years, all strains cultivated have only grown in standard laboratory conditions at higher, neutral pH, and not in acidic conditions.

Research performed at the University of Aberdeen has identified a novel organism which performs the process of ammonia oxidation in acidic conditions, and has also demonstrated that this organism is abundant and globally distributed in acidic soils.

A large part of this work involved the analysis of soils from the Scottish Agricultural College’s Craibstone Estate outside Aberdeen, to recognise the importance of the site from which the organisms were obtained, and the university at which the microbe was first cultivated, the new organism has been named Nitrosotalea devanaterra, which means an ammonia-oxidising ‘rod’ from soil in Aberdeen, incorporating Devana, the Roman name for Aberdeen. It is part of the Domain of microbes known as Archaea.

The research team has now been awarded a £0.5 million, 3.5-year research grant by the Natural Environment Research Council to investigate the highly unusual physiology of Nitrosotalea devanaterra and to find out more about its potential role in the loss of ammonia-based fertilisers and nitrous oxide gas emissions from soil!

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