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.
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.
*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.