Mexican corn fixes its own nitrogen

The Wonder Plant That Could Slash Fertilizer Use
An indigenous Mexican corn gets its nitrogen from the air.

"For thousands of years, people from Sierra Mixe, a mountainous region in southern Mexico, have been cultivating an unusual variety of giant corn. They grow the crop on soils that are poor in nitrogen—an essential nutrient—and they barely use any additional fertilizer. And yet, their corn towers over conventional varieties, reaching heights of more than 16 feet.

"A team of researchers led by Alan Bennett from UC Davis has shown that the secret of the corn’s success lies in its aerial roots—necklaces of finger-sized, rhubarb-red tubes that encircle the stem. These roots drip with a thick, clear, glistening mucus that’s loaded with bacteria. Thanks to these microbes, the corn can fertilize itself by pulling nitrogen directly from the surrounding air.

"The Sierra Mixe corn takes eight months to mature—too long to make it commercially useful. But if its remarkable ability could be bred into conventional corn, which matures in just three months, it would be an agricultural game changer."

David Trammel's picture

I think fertilizer is going to be one of those under the radar issues that is critical as the Collapse accelerates:

It means understanding how sustainable methods to farming is done and implementing them will be crucial.

alice's picture

Absolutely. Fertilizer is a huge issue. All the food grown by commercial agriculture relies for nitrogen on the Haber process which usually uses natural gas (fossil fuel) to fix nitrogen from the air. Future food production will need different sources of nitrogen. At the moment it's possible to use by-products of commercial ag such as oilseedmeal, which is sold as an animal feedstuff, as a nitrogen source for home gardening.

Blueberry's picture

Florida has been a big supplier for years, that will soon change. The last of the big mines will be done in 10-12 years. There is a track of 6000 acres about 40 miles West of Jacksonville Fl. The problem not enough to cover the cost of building a plant. So can they haul the rock to White Springs by truck or rail and cover the cost. The rail lines are mostly in place. If one of the 3 is missing (NPK) well plants have a hard time. So like oil and coal most of what is in the ground will stay in the ground.

ClareBroommaker's picture

It grows 16 feet tall, but does it produce a lot of grain? Rather than height, people growing corn for manual harvest often prefer a short corn that tillers (produces multiple stems which can all produce at least one ear, or which otherwise produces multiple, full, large ears. No doubt this is a study that will get further funding, especially geared toward extending the characteristics to other corns.

Anyway, its ability to fix nitrogen from the air is astounding!

David Trammel's picture

Popular press version: The Corn of the Future Is Hundreds of Years Old and Makes Its Own Mucus

Very good and informative article too.

Research paper: Nitrogen fixation in a landrace of maize is supported by a mucilage-associated diazotrophic microbiota