B.Sc. University of Western Ontario;
Ph.D Stanford University
Phone: 519-824-4120 x. 53396
Inexpensive technologies to reduce/replace nitrogen fertilizers for corn (maize); Sustainable Agriculture Kits (SAKs) for developing nations
Synthetic fertilizers are expensive, environmentally damaging and limit crop production worldwide. The focus of the Raizada Laboratory is to develop inexpensive biotechnologies that reduce nitrogen fertilizer inputs/costs for corn (maize) production in Canada as well as in the poorest nations of the world. The lab is taking four different approaches to help tackle the nitrogen problem in agriculture as well as to empower the world’s poorest farmers with Sustainable Agriculture Kits (SAKs):
1. Increase the supply of nitrogen inexpensively.
First, we are experimenting with inexpensive microbes that inhabit wild and domesticated corn (endophytes) that can better solubilize soil nutrients, stimulate root production for better nutrient uptake and/or fix nitrogen. This project is in collaboration with The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and the Lazarovits Lab at Agriculture and AgriFood Canada (London, ON). The goal of this project is to develop biofertilizers. As a side-project, we have discovered that a novel plant fungal endophyte produces the anti-cancer drug, Taxol, which we are studying. Second, we are collaborating with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and Crop Research Institute in Ghana (West Africa) to study Bambara Groundnut, a very nutritious, drought-tolerant legume that associates with bacteria (Rhizobia) that in turn can fix atmospheric nitrogen gas. Bambara is indigenous to Sub-Saharan Africa, and though some traditional knowledge remains, it has become underutilized following European colonization. Bambara can be used an inter-crop or rotation crop with corn, reducing the fertilizer requirements for corn, while supplying a highly nutritious food for local peoples facing water shortages. Along these lines, the Lab has also launched a website to educate growers about underutilized nitrogen-fixing legumes and other crops, located at http://www.AlternativeCropsCanada.org. Lab Researchers: David Johnston Monje (PhD student), Sameh Mahmoud (PhD student), Joseph Nketiah Berchie (Visiting PhD student from Ghana), Jonathan Polanski (undergraduate).
2. Utilize existing nitrogen resources more efficiently.
We have 3 projects in this area. First, real-time measurements of soil or plant nitrogen levels are critical to understanding whether fertilizer needs to be added or whether it is being added in excess quantities, which can be environmentally damaging and costly. On farms in Ontario, and in research labs in many developing nations, measuring soil nitrogen levels (e.g. nitrate) accurately requires expensive equipment or cannot be performed on-site. For example, in Ghana, the cost of measuring nitrate in a single soil sample is $20 USD, far beyond the reach of most researchers. We are engineering biosensor bacteria that change colour in response to changing nitrogen and amino acid (glutamine) concentrations. Our long-term goal is to develop a <$1 USD (soil extract) nitrate and (plant extract) glutamine test: free glutamine is a good indicator of the nitrogen status of corn. Second, when excess fertilizer is applied in large doses onto crops (an unnatural phenomenon), a percentage of it can be lost in the form of groundwater leaching and volatilization (as potent greenhouse gases). We are studying the effect of nitrogen on corn root growth and architecture using a unique aeroponics system in which roots are grown in the air, in dark barrels, misted with a nutrient solution, to permit non-destructive morphometric analysis. The long-term goal of this project is to optimize corn root architecture for more efficient nutrient uptake, particularly in the Spring when leaching is a danger. Using molecular microarrays, we are also studying the effects of nitrogen on the root hair, an under-studied cell type (in cereals) that comprises 70% of the root surface area and is the primary location for fertilizer absorption. Lab Researchers: Michael Tessaro (MSc student), Amelie Gaudin (PhD student), Christophe Liseron-Monfils (PhD student), Bridget Holmes (undergraduate), Sarah McClymont (undergraduate).
3. Decrease the nitrogen demand.
This is a tough problem and we are taking the 10-20 year view here: our long-term goal is to re-use the root system in tropical maize (which comprises >30% of the total plant mass) for the next growing season, a form of perennialism. This should improve both the water and nitrogen-use efficiencies. Varieties of wild corn are in fact perennial. We are beginning a long-term (>15-20 generation) selection field experiment with tropical germplasm in which we will decapitate corn shoots and select for shoot regeneration from axillary (tiller), rhizome or adventitious stem cells. For the past 6 years, however, the key focus of the lab has been to study the mechanism of shoot regeneration using Arabidopsis,the “fruitfly” of plant genetics research. We have discovered that Arabidopsis seedlings will regenerate new (adventitious) shoots within a few days following subcotyledonary decapitation, without the addition of hormones or callus; the new shoot is the result of a conversion of fate of a pre-emergent lateral root meristem, and hence we have discovered a natural system of stem cell fate conversion. We have studied different factors influencing plant stem cell regeneration including developmental mutants, light signal transduction pathways, photoprotective signal pathways, pathways related to aging and senescence, ethylene, auxin and cytokinin. Lab Researchers: Steve Chatfield (Post-Doctoral Fellow), Blair Nameth (MSc student).
4. Improve global online communication networks between agricultural experts working on nitrogen across disciplines, developed and developing nations, and the public and private sectors.
The fertilizer problem is global in nature and particularly affects farmers in poor nations. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find research collaborators in developing nations, because they do not have websites, communicate in a different language and/or do not publish in the same journals. Private sector researchers in wealthy nations are also often difficult to locate online, even though they offer a wealth of practical expertise. Academics also poorly communicate across broad disciplines, even though we all appreciate the value of inter-disciplinary research in solving real world problems. In order to break down all of these barriers, the Raizada Lab has launched the CropLink Global Initiative (http://www.maizelink.org), a meeting place for the world’s agricultural experts including those involved in nitrogen, corn and nitrogen-fixing crops. CropLink now contains the profiles of 16,500 agricultural experts from >100 countries and 86 sub-disciplines. This project is in collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (World Agricultural Information Center, WAICENT, Rome, Italy) and we have collaborated with scientists at Google Laboratories (Mountain View, California) to understand online search patterns in agriculture from developed and developing nations. Former Lab Researchers: Rohit Makhijani (Co-Founder of Croplink, software programmer), Carly Wight (undergraduate), Arani Kajenthira (undergraduate), Devon Radford (undergraduate), Etienne Papineau (undergraduate).
5. Sustainable Agriculture Kits (SAKs) for developing nations.
There already exists excellent, peer-reviewed scientific knowledge, good seed stocks, inexpensive tools, small business ideas, and environmentally-friendly indigenous knowledge to help poor farmers with their fertilizer and other needs -- but these are not being taken advantage of fully. What is lacking is a means to package, deliver and SHARE these "technologies" to the 2 billion people earning $1-$2 per day. Founded in 2008 by Prof. Raizada, SAKs are $10 commercial toolkits to make the world's best scientific and indigenous technologies and practices available to the world's ~2 billion rural poor people involved in agriculture --- at the correct economy of scale. Each Sustainable Agriculture Kit (SAK) consists of 3 components:
(i) SAK Seeds -- 100-200 colour-coded seed packages for improved staple crops from international and domestic institutions; seeds to enhance biodiversity in order to overcome global competition and hence trade subsidies; seeds to reintroduce more nutritious, drought-tolerant indigenous crops; seeds to improve vitamin and mineral nutrition from local green vegetables; seeds to replace synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides with plants that can partially replace these requirements; seeds for better animal feed; seeds for medicinal plants to combat local diseases (including HIV and malaria); and seeds for cash income generation;
(ii) SAK Tools -- $1 technologies including low-cost post-harvest seed storage bags and other green bags that prevent fruits and vegetables from rotting, and additional tools to facilitate food processing and small businesses from plants. The real profit in agriculture comes after the seed is harvested, for example turning wheat into bread.
(iii) SAK Picture Book -- Knowledge transfer books to explain use of the above seeds and tools, and to communicate the world's best peer-reviewed scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge to illiterate peoples to empower them and encourage them to experiment, including breeding their own hybrid seeds, techniques to conserve water and improved animal feed based on local plants.
SAKs represent a comprehensive, holistic approach to sustainable agriculture, with one main goal -- to generate profit locally in the world's most desperate nations. But each SAK kit is not being built from the top-down, but rather from the bottom-up, at the grassroots level based on months of surveys, and each SAK is designed and built locally using local experts, and then sold locally using local salespeople -- all to create jobs. Each step of the SAK chain is profit- and job-oriented in order to be sustainable. Women, especially, will be involved in each step of the process, especially to determine what the local needs are.
There is no universal SAK, as there is no universal type of agricultural system, cultural preference, soil type or climate. There is no magic bullet in agriculture.
The SAK concept is based on examining history: in the United States, for example, agriculture became successful in the early-mid 1900s because of publicly-funded, agricultural extension officers who communicated good agronomic practices to farmers, combined with the private sector, who made improved seeds and technologies available. The SAK Picture Books for illiterate peoples are an attempt to mimic the function of extension officers, and SAK Seeds/SAK Tools are an attempt to make technologies available to poor people at the correct economy of scale, with private-sector know-how and innovation.
SAKs cannot take the place, of course, of a good public extension system, expert breeders or even synthetic fertilizers, which are very effective, and should be made more accessible through subsidies. SAKs however target the bottom 30-40 nations in the UNDP Human Development Index -- nations that do not have an extension system, local breeders, access to fertilizers or a private sector, due to a history of war, corruption or disaster. Examples of such nations include Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Haiti, and DR Congo. International donor institutions do not work effectively in these nations due to a lack of security, poor infrastructure and because they often require government-government or institution-government agreements, and yet it is the local government which is the source of the problem and must be bypassed. Alternatively, where there is now a good government in place, the private sector may not yet be willing to invest in these high-risk nations. To help these nations emerge out of poverty and chaos, however, their farmers must be helped, as farming is the main source of income for 70-95% of the population in most of the UNDP HDI-bottom 30 countries.
Our initial target is modest, however, for local SAK organizations working with Prof. Raizada to sell and distribute 10,000 SAKs in our initial target nations by 2013. The goal is for 1 SAK to help 10 people (1 family of 5 and 1 additional family of 5). We want a family to purchase a SAK kit only once, and thereafter to generate their own seeds. We hope to learn lessons from these experiences to share with the international community, in order to then facilitate parallel SAK projects around the world.
The benefits provided by a SAK should not be overstated ---- the goal is modest, to raise incomes by $100-$500/family per year, but this will allow, for example, families to afford to send girls to school, one of the best drivers of sustained social progress.
The SAKglobal movement is still in the early stages: we are building the organization locally in each target nation, starting local surveys, gathering technologies and starting work on the first SAK Picture Book. Stay tuned for the SAKglobal.org website, coming soon! Please contact Manish Raizada directly to learn more (firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-519-824-4120 x53396).
For further information about the Raizada Lab, please visit: http://www.plant.uoguelph.ca/research/homepages/raizada/
Tessaro, M.J., Soliman, S.S.M. and Raizada, M.N. (2011) A whole cell biosensor for glutamine and applications for quantifying and visualizing glutamine in plants. Applied and Environmental Microbiology (In press, available online). http://aem.asm.org/content/early/2011/11/07/AEM.05261-11.abstract
Soliman, S.S.M., Tsao, R. and Raizada, M.N. (2011) Chemical inhibitors suggest endophytic fungal paclitaxel is derived from both mevalonate and non-mevalonate-like pathways. Journal of Natural Products (In press).
Taheri, A., Subramanian, J., Cline, J.A., Raizada, M.N. and Pauls, K.P. (2011) A WD-repeat gene from peach (Prunus persica L.) is a functional ortholog of Arabidopsis thaliana TRANSPARENT TESTA GLABRA1. In Vitro Cellular and Developmental Biology – Plant. DOI 10.1007/s11627-011-9390-3. http://www.springerlink.com/content/1n233565681t1022/
Gaudin, A.C.M., S.A. McClymont and Raizada M.N. (2011) The nitrogen adaptation strategy of the wild teosinte ancestor of modern maize, Zea mays subsp. parviglumis. Crop Science 51: 2780-2795. https://www.crops.org/publications/cs/abstracts/51/6/2780
Gaudin, A.C.M., S.A. McClymont, B.M. Holmes, E. Lyons, and Raizada M.N. (2011) Novel temporal, fine-scale and growth variation phenotypes in roots of adult-stage maize (Zea mays L.) in response to low nitrogen stress. Plant Cell & Environment 34: 2122-2137. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-3040.2011.02409.x/abstract
Johnston-Monje D. and Raizada M.N. (2011) Integration of Biotechnologies – Plant and Endophyte Relationships: Nutrient Management. In: Murray Moo-Young (ed.), Comprehensive Biotechnology, Second Edition, volume 4, pp. 713–727. Elsevier. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780080885049002646
Johnston-Monje D. and Raizada M.N. (2011) Conservation and diversity of seed associated endophytes in Zea across boundaries of evolution, ethnography and ecology. PLoS One 6: e20396. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0020396