Belgian researchers provide a strong boost to sustainable agriculture 

Ghent, 01/02/2024 – Much has been written about the European Climate law and the European Nitrate Directive. Besides social concerns, drastically reducing greenhouse gasses by 2030 and structurally lowering the use of nitrogen in agriculture poses significant challenges. Researchers from the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology now present concrete research results to lower nitrogen usage by targeting microorganisms in the soil. Their findings have been published in various scientific journals. 

Nitrogen and the soil microbiome 

Plants need nitrogen in the soil to grow. However, these plants compete with certain bacteria and archaea, two types of microorganisms that are also able to use nitrogen in the soil. These microorganisms convert nitrogen - in the form of ammonia - into nitrites and nitrates through a process called nitrification. These nitrites and nitrates leach into the soil, groundwater, and recreational water, making them unusable for agricultural crops and negatively impacting biodiversity and water quality. Additionally, nitrates can be converted into the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide or laughing gas. Farmers often fertilize excessively to ensure their crops have enough nitrogen, with negative consequences for biodiversity and the environment. 

Stopping nitrification 

Finding substances that block nitrification by microorganisms (known as nitrification inhibitors) is the key to a more efficient use of nitrogen in agriculture. When these microscopic soil organisms consume less nitrogen, more is available for plants, reducing the need for fertilization. Previous research focused strongly on soil bacteria, neglecting archaea. Researchers from the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology now shed light on these mysterious microorganisms, completing the picture. ​ 

The importance of these archaea for nitrogen consumption in the soil was long ignored. Current commercial inhibitors against bacteria are not only limited, they are also ineffective against archaea. To increase the efficiency of nitrification inhibition, we looked for nitrification inhibitors against archaea. -Dr. Fabian Beeckman, postdoctoral researcher at the Beeckman lab (VIB-UGent). 

The research group developed two test methods to identify nitrification inhibitors in archaea and examined nearly 50,000 molecules for their functional use. 

Not only have we described nitrification inhibitors for archaea, but we have also shown that a combination of inhibitors against bacteria and archaea yields the best results.This result is very promising. We now have the tools to find and combine the best inhibitors, truly reducing nitrogen usage in agriculture. - Dr. Hans Motte, project coordinator

A sustainable future 

Efficient nitrogen management is a goal that falls under the European climate law and European Nitrate Directive. In this context, the researchers go a step further towards sustainability. ​ 

Currently, all nitrification inhibitors are synthetic molecules. With our new test methods, we can now search for natural molecules that can also serve as nitrification inhibitors. In the next step, we can even look at plants that produce and excrete these products themselves in the soil. This opens the door to more efficient organic farming and sustainable agricultural systems. - Professor Tom Beeckman, group leader of the Beeckman lab.

Joran Lauwers

Joran Lauwers

Science & Business Communications Expert, VIB

Steve Bers

Steve Bers

Science Communications Expert, VIB

About the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology

The VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology wants to gain insight into how plants grow and respond to the environment. Scientists study how leaves and roots are formed, which micro-organisms live on and around the plant and which substances the plant makes. They map out the genetic diversity of the plant kingdom. This knowledge can lead to sustainable innovations in agriculture and food.

About VIB

VIB’s core mission is to generate disruptive insights in the molecular underpinning of life and to translate these actively into impactful innovations for patients and society. VIB is an independent research institute where some 1,800 top scientists from Belgium and abroad conduct pioneering basic research. As such, they are pushing the boundaries of what we know about molecular mechanisms and how they rule living organisms such as human beings, animals, plants, and microorganisms. Based on a close partnership with five Flemish universities – Ghent University, KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and Hasselt University – and supported by a solid funding program, VIB unites the expertise of all its collaborators and research groups in a single institute. VIB’s technology transfer activities translate research results into concrete benefits for society such as new diagnostics and therapies and agricultural innovations. These applications are often developed by young start-ups from VIB or through collaborations with other companies. This also leads to additional employment and bridges the gap between scientific research and entrepreneurship. VIB also engages actively in the public debate on biotechnology by developing and disseminating a wide range of science-based information. 

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About VIB

VIB is an independent research institute that translates insights in biology into impactful innovations for society. Collaborating with the five Flemish universities, it conducts research in plant biology, cancer, neuroscience, microbiology, inflammatory diseases, artificial intelligence and more. VIB connects science with entrepreneurship and stimulates the growth of the Flemish biotech ecosystem. The institute contributes to solutions for societal challenges such as new methods for diagnostics and treatments, as well as innovations for agriculture. 

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