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The “Impossible” Is Now Possible;
New tools enable real-time
monitoring of nitrogen absorption in plants
- 2014 March #5-2
The NiTrac sensor developed by Cheng Hsun Ho and
Wolf Frommer of the Carnegie Institution will enable non-invasive real-time
monitoring of nitrogen acquisition in action in plant roots, providing a new
tool set that can be used to improve nitrogen efficiency. The novel sensor
technology is widely applicable and useful also for cancer and neurobiology.
Credit: Cheng Hsun Ho and Wolf Frommer.
Nitrogen-tracking tools for better crops and less pollution
February 18, 2014, Stanford, CA: As every gardener knows, nitrogen is
crucial for a plant’s growth. But nitrogen absorption is inefficient.
This means that on the scale of food crops, adding significant levels of
nitrogen to the soil through fertilizer presents a number of problems,
particularly river and groundwater pollution.
As a result, finding a way to improve nitrogen uptake in agricultural
products could improve yields and decrease risks to environmental and human
Nitrogen is primarily taken up from the soil by the roots and assimilated by
the plant to become part of DNA, proteins, and many other compounds.
Uptake is controlled by a number of factors, including availability, demand,
and the plant’s energy status, however there is much about the transport
proteins involved in the process that isn’t understood.
New work from Carnegie’s Cheng-Hsun Ho and Wolf Frommer developed tools that
can help scientists observe the nitrogen-uptake process in real time and
could lead to developments that improve agriculture and the environment.
Details of the work will be published by eLife on March 11 and is already
Frommer had previously developed technology to spy on transport protein
activity by using fluorescent tags in a cell’s DNA to monitor the structural
rearrangements that a transporter undergoes as it moves its target molecule.
They tailored this technology to five nitrogen transport targets to monitor
the nitrogen uptake and assimilation process. “We engineered these sensors
to monitor the activity and regulation of suspected nitrogen transporters in
living plant roots, which otherwise are impossible to study,” Frommer said.
“This suite of tools will vastly improve our understanding of the
nitrogen-uptake process and will help to develop increased crop yields and
decrease fertilizer-caused pollution.”
Their method is applicable to any transporter from any organism, thereby
enabling the otherwise exceptionally difficult analysis of the transport
processes in the tissues of plants and animals.
The novel sensor technology is widely applicable and useful also for cancer
This work was funded by the National Science Foundation which can be found
What is Nitrogen?
Nitrogen, symbol N, is the chemical element of atomic number seven, and is
an essential building block of amino and nucleic acids, essential to life on
Elemental nitrogen in the atmosphere cannot be used directly by either
plants or animals, and must be converted to a reduced (or ‘fixed’) state to
be useful for higher plants and animals. Precipitation often contains
substantial quantities of ammonium and nitrate, thought to result from
nitrogen fixation by lightning and other atmospheric electric phenomena.
Nitrogen is present in all living organisms, in proteins, nucleic acids, and
other molecules. It typically makes up around 4% of the dry weight of plant
matter, and around 3% of the weight of the human body. It is a large
component of animal waste (for example, guano), usually in the form of urea,
uric acid, ammonium compounds, and derivatives of these nitrogenous
products, which are essential nutrients for all plants that cannot fix
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