Dr. Rodrigo Gutiérrez: Nitrogen Nutrition and Climate Change: The Key Process to Improve Agricultural Sustainability in Chile

Dr. Rodrigo Gutiérrez: Nitrogen Nutrition and Climate Change: The Key Process to Improve Agricultural Sustainability in Chile

Scientific research focused on the agricultural world is a highly favorable practice for our country. This productive sector, whose main activity is concentrated in the central and southern regions of Chile, accounts for about 20% of the integrated gross domestic product, according to figures from the Central Bank.

This interaction, science-agricultural world, not only allows to generate new strategies and technologies that enhance the production of, for example, cereals, but also creates a favorable impact on environmental ecosystems, gradually slowing down harmful processes such as pollution and the greenhouse effect.

In that sense, Dr. Rodrigo Gutiérrez, professor of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC), seeks to understand "how nitrogen signaling, a fundamental nutrient for plants interacts with hormonal signals to control plant growth and development. This knowledge is essential to improve the efficiency of nitrogen utilization in plants, the amino acid content in seeds and other important characteristics in terms of agriculture, nutrition and human health" (Source: Web News Portal – PUC).

Plants and Nitrogen: In search of new knowledge

Plants are autotrophic organisms that photosynthesis and capture the carbon they need from the air, in that sense, they also perceive elements and compounds vital for their functioning, among which we can find: oxygen, water and, finally, nitrogen. One of the central lines of research of Dr. Rodrigo Gutiérrez's group focuses on nitrogen metabolites or nutrients, who expresses: "The future problem that plants have for their growth and development is strongly mediated by nitrogen, and, in that sense, understand how they census different chemical forms of this element and how in turn, they assimilate, recycle and manage it in interaction with other environmental variables such as water, it is fundamental for a correct life cycle. If we can understand this process well, one would be able to, for example, optimize fertilization and make an impact on agricultural productivity."

Fertilization has a huge economic and environmental impact. Agrochemicals in the industry account for about 50% of production costs and a good part of that percentage corresponds to fertilizers, among which is Nitrogen. However, its capture is inefficient, which has several adverse effects, such as water pollution and the generation of greenhouse gases of the most harmful. In fact, according to the European Union, "nitrous oxide is the only nitrogen oxide (NOx) that acts as a greenhouse gas. Compared to CO2, nitrous oxide in a century can have a global warming effect about 300 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.", (Source: https://www.elagoradiario.com/agorapedia/gases-de-efecto-invernadero-gei/).

From this perspective, the work led by Dr. Gutiérrez with his team has to do with seeking knowledge that allows the generation of sustainable crops from the economic and environmental point of view. "Once you water the plant the problem is the fertilizer, so if you do not replenish the environment where it develops, productivity will fall drastically. Nitrogen is also an ecological constraint. The availability of nitrogen in natural systems also impacts the growth and development of wild species," he says.

Under this scenario, researchers, through the search for new knowledge, pursue novel strategies to improve the efficiency of nitrogen use in crops; and, in that same search, tools of direct application are generated that are patented and transferred to the productive world. "We showed that nitrogen fixation optimization works in rice, improving efficiency in this plant, which is one of the worst efficient. This would generate a potential impact on the industry. It is important to make it clear that while we are not a technology development company, the knowledge we generate can be used to produce solutions in the most productive world."" he emphasizes.

New foods to tackle climate change: Desert potato

Dr. Gutiérrez's research team in collaboration with the group of Dr. Claudio Latorre, also an academic at the Faculty of Biological Sciences of the PUC, have been working in the Atacama Desert for more than a decade, studying the different mechanisms of adaptation of plant species to the conditions of the desert, among which are: lack of water, high UV radiation, thermal oscillations and very poor soils. The results of these studies are soon to be published in the prestigious journal PNAS.

"We have made a characterization of the diversity of Atacama and the adaptive mechanisms that species have to survive; under this prism, it should be noted that, there are some species that are very interesting, one of them, is Hoffmannseggia doelli, which belongs to the familyFabaceae of the order Fagales. Within this large family we find the desert potato or kulchao in kunza, a plant that grows in extreme conditions in the Atacama Desert, with very little water, no nitrogen and under strong solar radiation."

"Fabaceae are an interesting plant family, because they have the ability to associate with nitrogen-fixing rhizobacteria and therefore do not need to be fertilized with this element, which is a great advantage. In addition to that, the kulchao lives in very extreme conditions, practically on the edge of the absolute desert of Atacama, where there is no macro life. In that sense, one of the first plants that appears in correlation with the availability of water, is Hoffmannseggia doelli, says the researcher.

On the other hand, and continuing with interesting characteristics of this plant, one of the mechanisms they have to survive, is that it generates a tuber that allows it to persist during the driest time of the year. This tuber is edible and, in addition, has unique nutritional properties, such as a high concentration of iron, potassium and fiber. "We are currently working to rescue this pre-Columbian food and grow it. We believe that it is a great option to produce new foods in a scenario of increased desertification worldwide", closes the researcher.