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UW-Madison could be instrumental in changing how corn is grown

Posted: 6:16 PM, Oct 03, 2018
Updated: 2018-10-03 19:16:55-04

Research being done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison could change the way corn is grown.

Jean-Michel Ane, a professor of bacteriology and agronomy at UW-Madison, is leading the effort.  So far, the findings are prompting international attention.

"I wasn't expecting our work to be featured in USA Today and other publications," Ane said. "That is not why we do this. Honestly, our only goal is good science. Being able to see change because of it in the next few years would be amazing."

Ane's team in Madison is studying corn that can use nitrogen from the atmosphere to grow, rather than from fertilizer. Scientists found this corn in Mexico, being grown by indigenous people. The key is a bacteria in the clear mucus that forms around the roots of the plant.

"This has been kind of the holy grail for a long time," said Joe Lauer, who grew up on a farm and is now a professor of agronomy at UW-Madison. "Corn that doesn't rely on nitrogen fertilizer would significantly reduce the amount of money that farmers spend on fertilizer. Typically, right now, they're having to spend $100 or $200 per acre to buy the nitrogen fertilizer. Not only would it eliminate that cost, but it would be big for our environment too. If you're using little to no fertilizer, you reduce the potential for chemical run-off into ground water."

But there are still a lot of questions and concerns. The corn that can synthesize nitrogen from the air rather than fertilizer, yields much smaller crops. 

"Not to mention, the Midwest is very different than Mexico in terms of growing conditions," Lauer said. "A lot more testing and corn breeding would need to be done to even get to a place where we could try it here. If it was viable here, corporations would be all over it already."

Still, both Lauer and Ane say this research is a step in the right direction. And big-name food manufacturer, Mars, Inc. is funding more in-depth studies at UW-Madison.