Nitrogen fixation is a process in which certain bacteria use atmospheric nitrogen gas, which green plants cannot directly utilize, to produce ammonia, a nitrogen compound plants can use. It is one of nature’s great ironies that the availability of nitrogen in the soil frequently sets an upper limit on plant growth even though the plants’ leaves are bathed in a sea of nitrogen gas. The leguminous plants—among them crop plants such as soybeans, peas, alfalfa, and clover—have solved the nitrogen supply problem by entering into a symbiotic relationship with the bacterial genus Rhizobium; as a matter of fact, there is a specific strain of Rhizobium for each species of legume. The host plant supplies the bacteria with food and a protected habitat and receives surplus ammonia in exchange. Hence, legumes can thrive in nitrogen-depleted soil.
Unfortunately, most of the major food crops—including maize, wheat, rice, and potatoes—cannot. On the contrary, many of the high-yielding hybrid varieties of these food crops bred during the Green Revolution of the 1960’s were selected specifically to give high yields in response to generous applications of nitrogen fertilizer. This poses an additional, formidable challenge to plant geneticists: they must work on enhancing fixation within the existing symbioses. Unless they succeed, the yield gains of the Green Revolution will be largely lost even if the genes in legumes that equip those plants to enter into a symbiosis with nitrogen fixers are identified and isolated, and even if the transfer of those gene complexes, once they are found, becomes possible. The overall task looks forbidding, but the stakes are too high not to undertake it.