Scientists from Duke University are raising money through crowdfunding platform Experiment . com to sequence the genome of a promising little fern called Azolla.
Durham, NC, June 15, 2014 -(PressReleasePoint)- Scientists from Duke University are raising money through crowdfunding platform Experiment.com to sequence the genome of a promising little fern called Azolla. This could be a huge step towards decreasing Earth’s CO2 levels, improving biofuel production, and lowering food prices.
Fifty million years ago, the Earth was so warm that turtles and alligators thrived in lush forests at the poles. Much of the North Pole was covered in a rather less charismatic life form: the floating, duckweed-like fern, Azolla.
Recent geological evidence from Arctic Ocean seabeds reveals 50-million-year-old sediments that are composed almost entirely of Azolla fossils for an 800,000-year span. This interval, known as the ‘Arctic Azolla event,’ was a period when Azolla blanketed the ocean surface repeatedly, forming dense mats of vegetation.
Then something really interesting happened. As these Azolla plants died and became part of the sediment, they took atmospheric carbon down with them. Global atmospheric levels of CO2 fell significantly, precipitating Earth's initial shift from a greenhouse world towards the current icehouse climate that we're now worried will melt.
Azolla is still with us, floating on the surface of ponds, lakes and rice paddies. Though tiny––one Azolla plant could comfortably sit on top of your smallest fingernail––it can double its entire body mass in just less than two days. Some researchers think this makes it a promising alternative for biofuel production and carbon-capture efforts.
But Azolla does yet another interesting trick––it captures all the nitrogen fertilizer it needs from the atmosphere around it. Since the dawn of agriculture, Asia’s farmers have known about, and deliberately exploited, the benefits of growing Azolla as a companion plant with rice. The floating fern thrives in rice paddies, fixing nitrogen and other nutrients, which are released into the environment at the end of each growing season, constantly improving the soil composition and providing a natural, green fertilizer that significantly bolsters rice productivity.
The secret here is that Azolla isn't just a plant; it’s a ‘superorganism,’ a symbiotic collaboration of a plant and a microbe. In a special protective cavity inside each leaf, Azolla hosts a microbe called Nostoc that spends its entire life converting atmospheric nitrogen into food for its host.