Ray Dixon is a microbiologist at the John Innes Centre in the UK. He’s currently the Co-Director JIC-CAS Centre of Excellence in Plant and Microbial Science. Dixon has been working to understand the unique relationships between agricultural crops and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These special bacteria live in the soil, converting nitrogen existing in the atmosphere into a form that can be taken up by plants. Legume crops, like alfalfa, clover, beans, lentils, and even leguminous trees like locust, have the ability to create a symbiotic relationship with these bacteria if they are present in the soil, a benefit that both small and large scale farmers across the world have been utilizing for millennia.
If the symbiosis between legumes and nitrogen fixing bacteria could be engineered to work with other crops like cereals, it could provide farmers, consumers, and the environment with huge positive benefits. However, the exact functions that allow this process to happen are incredibly complex and scientists don’t know everything about them. Researchers like Ray Dixon and his team at the John Innes Center are working hard to characterize the bacteria and their processes in hopes that specialized plants and associated nitrogen fixing bacteria could be co-developed, giving farmers high-yielding crops that preserve and restore soil health without requiring costly and potentially polluting synthetic fertilizers.