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Nitrogen-using bacteria can cut farms’ greenhouse gas emissions 

A tractor amidst many rows of small plants, with brown hills in the background.

Enlarge (credit: Timothy Hearsum)

Fritz Haber: good guy or bad guy? He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his part in developing the Haber-Bosch process, a method for generating ammonia using the nitrogen gas in air. The technique freed agriculture from the constraint of needing to source guano or manure for nitrogen fertilizer and is widely credited for saving millions from starvation. About half of the world’s current food supply relies on fertilizers made using it, and about half of the nitrogen atoms in our bodies can be traced back to it.

But it also allowed farmers to use this newly abundant synthetic nitrogen fertilizer with abandon. This has accentuated agriculture’s role as a significant contributor to global warming because the emissions that result from these fertilizers is a greenhouse gas—one that has a warming potential almost 300 times greater than that of carbon dioxide and remains in the atmosphere for 100 years. Microbes in soil convert nitrogen fertilizer into nitrous oxide, and the more nitrogen fertilizer they have to work with, the more nitrous oxide they make.

Agriculture also leaks plenty of the excess nitrogen into waterways in the form of nitrate, generating algal blooms that create low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ where no marine life can live.

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