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"Self Corn-Trol" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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A University of Illinois agricultural engineer believes it may be possible to "teach" corn to provide its own nitrogen, thus eliminating the need for farmers to add expensive nitrogen fertilizers to the soil.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Yes, We -- Corn.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Since we're about to talk about corn, I'll dispense with the usual, "all-ears," "aw, shucks," "kernel-of-truth," "shock-value," "flakey," "husky," "stalky," "cob- bled," "corn-y" references that usually go with corn stories.

This is about what may be a way for corn-growers to stop pouring tons of nitrogen fertilizer into the soil. It's a multi-disciplinary research project led by scientists from the University of Illinois. The team is working in the relatively new field (no pun intended) of synthetic biology -- kind of a melding of science and engineering that develops novel biological systems and functions.

In the case of corn, having the plant "fix" its own nitrogen -- eliminating the need for much of the outside fertilizer. Soybeans do this naturally by actually communicating with the bacteria in the soil. The message is sent out from the roots: (SOUND EFFECT: on speaker: "your attention please") to get the bacteria to come and hang out there and colonize.

Bacteria are usually free-livin' soil organisms, but soybeans and bacteria have made a "special arrangement:" "I give you sugars through my roots and you fix nitrogen that I can use to grow." The researchers hope to develop a system that lets corn plants do the same thing.

(SOUND EFFECT: country field) If successful, corn may be able to provide nutrients for itself.

Self-fertilizing corn -- A-maize-ing. Sorry. (SOUND EFFECT: corn popping) I'm still waiting for corn that pops and butters itself.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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