Nitrogen’s Role in Plant Growth


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By Michelle Yoshinaka, VP, Corporate Marketing & Communications, Sound Agriculture

Nitrogen is the most essential nutrient for plant growth. It is a major component of chlorophyll and protein-building amino acids that are essential for plant health. For millennia, the plants’ ability to feed itself relied heavily on tiny, nitrogen-fixing bacteria (NFB) and phosphate-solubilizing microbes (PSM) living in the soil and the roots of some plants. Plants have the ability to signal those microbes to turn nitrogen and phosphorus into available forms. However, changes in soil health and weather, along with decades of synthetic fertilizer application have left this natural process falling short of the needs of today’s grower.

Because so little nitrogen is naturally available today in a form that plants can use, many growers apply nitrogen each season to ensure their fields are productive. As a result, nitrogen applications can be a major expense for growers, and excess nitrogen that escapes into groundwater, surface water, and the atmosphere can be incredibly harmful to the environment.

Applying excess nitrogen is common because it is difficult to know how much of the applied nutrient will be taken in by the plant. There are many contributing factors, some of which are outside of a grower’s control. Weather, temperature, soil health and timing all play a role. In addition, determining the nitrogen needs of a field is complicated and unpredictable, and because of this, 30-50 percent of applied nitrogen fertilizer goes unused by the plant. The remaining fertilizer can pollute waterways, degrade soil health, and contribute to climate change by releasing nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere—an extremely harmful greenhouse gas with 300 times the heat-trapping effect of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Research is paving the way to new solutions, including a category of products that tap into the natural nutrient reserves in the field to reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizer.

Unleashing the Power Within the Soil

Scientists are just beginning to understand more about the complex relationship between plants and the soil microbiome, thanks to metagenomics and the significant cost reduction in associated technologies like DNA sequencing. With over 100 million different species in a gram of soil, having access to this type of technology allows for deeper exploration and has led to advancements that were not possible a decade ago. As research started to take a closer look at the soil microbiome, plant-to-microbe signaling stood out as an area worth exploring.

The scientists at sustainable agtech company, Sound Agriculture, are among those looking at plant and environmental interactions and are particularly keen to provide growers with new tools that help maintain profitability while minimizing environmental impact. The company’s first product, SOURCE™, is a foliar spray that activates beneficial microbes—NFB and PFM—at the root zone of the plant. These microbes transform atmospheric nitrogen into a plant available form and unlock phosphorus that is stored in the soil, improving nutrient efficiency and allowing growers to reduce synthetic nitrogen by 25-50 lbs per acre while maintaining yield. In addition, trials are underway to understand the long-term soil health impacts that a microbiome activator can provide.

Creating True Impact

Solutions that help growers maintain production levels, offer ease of use, and provide a positive return on investment are key for quick adoption and lasting impact. With its first product, Sound Agriculture has checked these essential boxes and is positioned to make a positive and lasting change for growers.

Editor’s note: Sound Agriculture focuses on creating a more agile and resilient food system through innovative soil health inputs. The views expressed in this article represent those of the author.