Fertilizers form the backbone of many agricultural processes worldwide. Decades worth of work has been poured into understanding the way in which fertilizers function and the ways in which they can affect the environment. In fact, the process by which bacteria break down nitrogen products in fertilizers to help provide plants with nutrients has found its way into high school textbooks, often accompanied by easy to understand diagrams.
A study led by Prof. Kyle Lancaster, chemistry, however, sheds light on a new found process that suggests that there is more to this nitrogen cycle than previously known. According to Lancaster, existing biochemical models state that bacteria convert ammonia into an inorganic compound, Hydroxylamine, before turning that into nitrite. Nitrite can then be converted by other bacteria to form nitrate, a vital plant nutrient.
On a daily basis, most of us do not think about the crops that our food comes from. And yet, the importance of commercial crop studies cannot be overstated, especially for human health. Without the crucial genetic mapping resources developed by Prof. Edward Buckler, plant breeding and genetics, these studies would be impossible. As a geneticist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, Buckler is in a unique position to manage a variety of national resources to lead such studies. These efforts culminated in a Washington, D.C. ceremony in April, where Buckler was awarded the National Academy of Sciences Prize in Food and Agricultural Studies.
Hunger and malnutrition are ancient problems. So much has been said and written on the subject of feeding the 6.7 billion people on Earth that the discussion has progressed from an instinctual question of “what’s for dinner” into an unwieldy, amorphous cloud of questions — about nutrition, about politics, about the environment — for which there seem to be no easy answers.
At a time when Ann Coulter ’84 and Keith Olbermann’79 are butting heads over the legitimacy of the Ag School and the value of a communication degree, it seems appropriate for scientists to ask: Are there any facts in Ms. Coulter’s claims? I invite you to look at another (maybe, the third) side of the coin, what we call the narrative of science: Imagine Cornell without Agriculture, without the Life Sciences, without Communication (especially, in the life sciences)…