Fertilizers containing nitrogen can boost crop yields tremendously, but the resulting agricultural runoff pollutes nearby waterways. If plants were more efficient at fixing nitrogen, the problem could be alleviated. Research published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences outlines one potential way to achieve this goal. According to the report, plants endowed with a corn gene absorb greater amounts of the element from the soil and can thrive under low-nitrogen conditions.

Researchers led by Shuichi Yanagisawa of Okayama University in Japan engineered a strain of Arabidopsis plants carrying an additional gene, Dof1, which affects metabolism. The modified plants contained more carbon, amino acids and about 30 percent more nitrogen than control plants did. In addition, they grew well in soil containing one tenth the amount of nitrogen that normal shrubs needed to flourish.

The scientists also tested the modification technique on potato plants and had similar successes. They thus posit that the Dof1 approach could be applied to a wide variety of plant species and could suggest a means of lessening agricultural dependence on nitrogen fertilizers.