Scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center are working on a solution that may cut agricultural-based greenhouse gases significantly. The team is working on a nitrogen tracking technology that may help cut greenhouse emissions equivalent to the CO2 produced by 10 million cars annually. In their newly established Subterranean Influences on Nitrogen and Carbon (SINC) Center of Excellence, the experts will seek to address the pollution problems caused by nitrogen fertilizers.

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According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), growers apply approximately 22 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizers to crops in the U.S. each year. This nitrogen ends up polluting both the waters and the atmosphere. According to the researchers, when nitrogen fertilizers are used, they can be converted into nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent than CO2.

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“Everybody knows about carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas,” said Rebecca Bart, Ph.D., associate member of the Danforth Center and director of the SINC Center. “Nitrous oxide is released from agriculture fields, and as a greenhouse gas, is nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Excess nitrogen applied to fields also pollutes the environment through runoff into waterways and oceans.”

The SINC Center works to develop technology that will reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers by promoting microbes that utilize naturally occurring nitrogen. Although nitrogen freely exists in nature, it is available in forms that plants cannot use. Some plants, such as beans, form symbiotic relationships with bacteria that convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into usable forms. 

Further, some microbes in the soil promote nitrogen recycling. The SINC approach seeks to start tracking nitrogen to determine ways that microbes interact with it. According to the scientists, this investment will help cut up to 12% of agricultural-based greenhouse emissions in the U.S., an amount equivalent to the emissions produced by 10 million cars.

“The SINC team brings exceptional scientific expertise to bear on a great challenge of our time,” said Jim Carrington, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Danforth Center. “Committing to lower the impact of agriculture on climate change is something we simply must do.”

The center will bring onboard experts from diverse fields and use advanced equipment to achieve its goals. The researchers will also benefit from extensive data sets that will be studied through advanced modeling systems. The study is being funded by Philip and Sima Needleman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and has received a $250,000 grant from the Bank of America.

+ Danforth Center

Lead image via Pixabay