Three scientists at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation recently received a $6.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to expand research aimed at understanding and enhancing symbioses with legumes that are crucial for sustainable agriculture.

Drs. Michael Udvardi, Rujin Chen and Kiran Mysore received the four-year grant, which is the second largest ever received by the Noble Foundation in its 67-year history. “All NSF grants are highly competitive,” said Dr. Richard Dixon, director of the Plant Biology Division. “Being awarded this grant underscores the quality of research being conducted here at the Noble Foundation and the critical nature of this legume research.”

The Noble Foundation is internationally recognized for its research into legumes, including economically significant crops such as alfalfa and clover. Legumes play an invaluable role in sustainable agriculture because they develop nitrogen-fixing root nodules that accumulate bacteria (called rhizobia) that can convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia. In essence, they can create their own source of nitrogen fertilizer.

The NSF grant will allow the Noble researchers, along with their co-principal investigators, Drs. Maria Harrison of The Boyce Thompson Institute, Rebecca Dickstein of the University of North Texas, and Janine Sherrier of The University of Delaware, to determine the genes responsible for the development and nitrogen-fixing function of nodules. Additionally, the research will examine how fungi in the soil form a symbiosis with plant roots, improving phosphorus uptake in the plant.

Understanding the genetic controls and biology of the symbioses with rhizobia and fungi, may enable Noble Foundation scientists to improve the plant’s ability to use these invaluable symbioses better, leading to more sustainable agricultural practices.

Currently, many agricultural producers conduct high input agriculture which requires significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers. Nitrogen is costly and comes with environmental concerns. Phosphorus – which originates from phosphate rock – is a limited resource. “Legumes have been vital to agriculture for thousands of years because of their natural ability to utilize atmospheric nitrogen for growth,” Udvardi said. “As we move to more sustainable agricultural practices, improving beneficial symbioses in legumes and other plants will enable them to use nitrogen and phosphorus more efficiently, reducing the need for agricultural inputs. This will be good for agricultural producers and the environment.”

The Noble Foundation research in legumes will continue to expand the organization’s catalog of genetic resources that are accessible to the global scientific community. In addition, powerful tools for cell biology will be developed that will reveal important cellular details of plant symbioses. “These resources will also help to advance research in legumes beyond the study of symbiosis,” Udvardi said. “They will enable researchers to gather information that they might not otherwise be able to obtain. It’s an invaluable outcome for our community.”

Udvardi, Chen and Mysore will collaborate with scientists at the Noble Foundation, including Drs. Elison Blancaflor, Dixon, Yuhong Tang and Jiangqi Wen.