A caveat on science news

Now that I’ve introduced you to the wider world of science news, I have to give you some warnings. When you read about scientific discoveries, make sure you have a look at the reference links and primary sources. Ultimately, stories should be based on peer-reviewed literature because those sources have been vetted by other experts within the same field. If there is no primary data, you have reason to be skeptical. Also, follow the money. A commercial interest means eventually someone is trying to sell you something and you may not be getting the whole truth.

Here is an example from Science Daily: N-fix

A researcher at the University of Nottingham has discovered a new way to make atmospheric nitrogen available to more crop plant species. Currently only some plant species (legumes) are capable of having a beneficial relationship with special bacteria capable of taking up atmospheric nitrogen and sharing it with their plant hosts. This reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizers. With this new ‘N-fix’ technology, a more promiscuous nitrogen-fixing bacterium has been discovered that can interact with non-legume plant species. This would mean a non-engineered, non-chemical solution for reducing the use of fertilizers.

Sounds great, right? Yes, but right now I would file this under science speculation. Show me the data.* The only reference is a press release from the University of Nottingham with the same information. Here is a skeptical response to the press release that breaks it down in more detail.

There a few issues at play here. The only source is a press release from the University of Nottingham, no corroborating evidence. The principle investigator has been researching this problem for a number of years, but scientists just can’t take each other’s word without data. The technology has been licensed to Azotic Technologies, Ltd. to commercially develop the product.

There’s the other issue. Let’s say that this new potentially revolutionary and profitable technology really works as described. The researcher and the university that has sponsored decades of research leading up to this technology have good reason to want to protect this intellectual property. Just shouting it from the rooftops could result in other companies with mega-development power swooping in and capitalizing on that work. Academic labs and universities are not equipped to commercially develop all possible technology spawned from the basic research conducted within its ivory towers. So, it makes sense to license (allow defined use or further development for a mutually agreed upon financial relationship) these technologies to commercial entities that are capable of developing them into marketable products. Eventually, Azotic Technologies Ltd. is going to have to show some data comparing crop yields for plants with and without the N-fix bacteria and/or fertilizer if they want to sell it. The optimist in me says, “I want to believe,” but, for now, there’s just no way to evaluate these findings.**

Bottom line: Always check the sources for science news and consider its legitimacy (peer-reviewed publication is always best). The absence of or questionable sources should send up some red flags.

Second bottom line: Commercializing practical technologies from basic academic research is its own minefield filled with problems beyond the science.***

The truth is out there, but be careful.

Johnna

*Say it ala Cuba Gooding Jr. (Show me the money!) in Jerry Macguire… several times… louder each time. Yeah, now you’ve got it. Do this every time you read a factual statement and you are well on your way to becoming a scientist.

**If you’re a gambler, find a way to invest in Azotic Technologies Ltd. before it gets bought out by Monsanto or Syngenta or another BigAg company. N-fix may be commercially available as seed coating in 2 -3 years.

***We’ll have to get into more of those details later.

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2 thoughts on “A caveat on science news

  1. Jonathan Byron

    Here are my caveats:
    1) This does not repeal the laws of thermodynamics. It takes a lot of energy to break N2 into a form that is available to plants. There is a reason that the yield on beans and other legumes is much lower per acre than is found in the grains – with legumes, much of the plant’s energy goes into producing nitrogen for protein. Not a problem if you need protein, but the calorie yield is less.
    2) Where is the evidence that this method is more efficient than just growing legumes? Legumes have co-evolved with Rhizobium for a long time, and those systems are probably more optimized than ‘a good idea’ that some human had and worked out over the course of a few years. Is the new whiz-bang really better than composting, chop-and-drop, interplanting, or crop rotation? I suspect that this method beats not fertilizing a plant with any sort of nitrogen, but cannot compete with externally supplied fertilizer (organic or inorganic) or other proven management practices.
    3) The competition among bacteria and fungi to colonize plants is fierce. Where is the evidence that this type of endophytic symbiosis is stable? In one paper that I was able to access (link below), the seeds had to be germinated aseptically and inoculated ‘in the bubble’ – if the seed sprouted in actual soil, then it was too late and the bacteria could not compete. Are we going to germinate the seed for 10 million acres of corn in petri dishes and then manually plant it in the field? I don’t think so. Maybe they have developed a way of pelletizing seed that gets around this, but at what cost?

    Here is the full text of a master’s thesis on using that same bacteria (Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus) in corn.
    http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1812&context=etd

    Reply
    1. johnnaroose Post author

      Thanks for commenting. Here are my thoughts on the points you bring up…
      1. You are correct. it takes a great deal of energy to convert N2 into a form useable for plants. In all cases (legumes) this is done by the symbiotic bacteria that live in their roots. Plants cannot do this themselves. Interestingly, some photosynthetic bacteria have the nitrogenase enzyme and can perform this reaction, but they have elaborate methods for getting this to work because the oxygen produced by photosynthesis destroys the nitrogen-fixing enzyme. So the fact that the press release says that all plant cells will then be able to fix nitrogen is inaccurate.
      2. I think the ultimate goal will be converting non-legume plants (plants like corn that cannot currently take advantage of the beneficial symbiotic relationship with N2-fixing bacteria) into plants that can enter into this beneficial symbiosis to reduce the need for nitrogen-based fertilizers. You are correct that this symbiotic relationship is complicated and involves more than just finding a new superbug. I think that nature would have figured this out already. Overall it is an attempt to solve a particular issue with the current ‘big-ag’ type farm. It should not eliminate your other questions and the questions we should all be asking about creating a truly sustainable food system (based on crop rotation, different varieties, composting etc.).
      3. Your point is well-taken in that this may be the biggest hurdle to making this new technology even a commercial possibility. I’ve done those kind of sterile-germination-then-transplant-type experiments with my plants in the lab. It is brutal for even someone with a high tolerance for tedious work. I am currently ignorant of the technology and its expense related to commercially preparing these kind of bacterial innoculants, but this would have to ultimately be accounted for in the price.

      I skimmed the thesis you were able to find on the bacterium. What is most notable is that even though they are able to get colonization of the bacteria (as you point out under very controlled conditions), there is no nitrogenase activity. This means they did NOT fix nitrogen. So there’s not much point of having them around. After reading that in the abstract, I admit I did not bother reading further. Clearly a long way to go with this technology based on the available literature. IMHO, I think they will have to do some genetic manipulation of the bacteria to get it to work.

      Reply

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