Its aerial roots drip with a thick, clear, glistening mucus that’s loaded with bacteria

Sunday, August 26th, 2018

Corn, or maize, originated in southern Mexico, when it was domesticated from a wild cereal called teosinte, and the region is still home to the greatest diversity of the crop, including a unique variety that uses air as fertilizer:

For thousands of years, people from Sierra Mixe, a mountainous region in southern Mexico, have been cultivating an unusual variety of giant corn. They grow the crop on soils that are poor in nitrogen — an essential nutrient — and they barely use any additional fertilizer. And yet, their corn towers over conventional varieties, reaching heights of more than 16 feet.

A team of researchers led by Alan Bennett from UC Davis has shown that the secret of the corn’s success lies in its aerial roots — necklaces of finger-sized, rhubarb-red tubes that encircle the stem. These roots drip with a thick, clear, glistening mucus that’s loaded with bacteria. Thanks to these microbes, the corn can fertilize itself by pulling nitrogen directly from the surrounding air.

Aerial roots of corn from Sierra Mixe

The Sierra Mixe corn takes eight months to mature — too long to make it commercially useful. But if its remarkable ability could be bred into conventional corn, which matures in just three months, it would be an agricultural game changer.

All plants depend on nitrogen to grow, and while there’s plenty of the element in the air around us, it’s too inert to be of use. But bacteria can convert this atmospheric nitrogen into more usable forms such as ammonia — a process known as fixation. Legumes, like beans and peas, house these nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots. But cereals, like corn and rice, largely don’t. That’s why American farmers need to apply more than 6.6 million tons of nitrogen to their corn crops every year, in the form of chemical sprays and manure.


  1. Kirk says:

    Exposed mucous on plants usually points to a very moist environment, like the tropical jungle or a swamp. I would suspect that this is not going to be a quick and easy thing to bring to North American crops grown on the high plains, and will likely require irrigation, which is just shifting the requirements from fertilizer to more fresh water. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

    Now, combine it with the ability to grow in high-salt environments…? Now, you may have something.

  2. Bruce says:

    Stick a greenhouse on the end of your city power plant’s smokestack, add water vapor, might work.

  3. Philo Eleutheria says:

    Highly reductionist & way overly simplistic view.

    “That’s why American farmers need to apply more than 6.6 million tons of nitrogen to their corn crops every year, in the form of chemical sprays and manure.”

    American (and other) Farmers need to add nitrogen because they neglect the essential actions of natural decomposition.

    Natural decomposition of previous matter, via the process of feeding by bacteria, fungi, enzymes, etc. is the principle source of nutrients (macro & micro alike), vitamins, natural antibiotics, antifungals, new “free” enzymes, etc. Even concepts like taste are affected/directed by this process. Nitrogen does not induce nor affect enhanced taste of foods.

    For starters, Nitrogen is only one of a large number of nutrients, macro and micro alike.

    Second, there is a very complicated process, even involving natural energies/electricity in the atmosphere, in the process of proper cellular growth and development.

    Plants are not too dissimilar from human or animal bodies. Each need a wide range of nutrients, macro and micro, plus other natural actions/reactions, in symbiotic combination, to properly function.

    Fritz Haber, inventor of the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing Nitrogen, in his Noble Prize acceptance speech, warned:

    “It may be that this solution is not the final one. Nitrogen bacteria teach us that Nature, with her sophisticated forms of the chemistry of living matter, still understands and utilizes methods which we do not as yet know how to imitate.”

    Nitrogen, and Nitrogen-fixing bacteria, are only one of a multitude of processes required in new cell generation.

    Add loads of nitrogen to a tomato plant and see what happens. The excess nitrogen will interfere with the uptake and usage of other nutrients, like Calcium, causing mutant & unusable fruit (as the fruit lacks the Calcium to form its body/cell structure correctly, essentially imploding upon itself).

    In fact, numerous studies have shown that focus solely on N-P-K nutrients (especially the N) are responsible for the vast reductions of the other bacteria, fungi, enzymes, and other microorganisms that are necessary for proper growth & development.

    Typically, an incrase in the rate of N applied, results in a decrease of numbers and variety of microbiota populations.

    Author needs to read books like Enriching the Earth by Vaclav Smil, The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, and others, and do a lot more research.

    I have done years of intensive studying, vast numbers of experiments, and have done this stuff for a living….and I know for a fact how far off, and reductionist, studies or research like this really is.

    The answer is so simple, and right in front of our eyes, yet we continue to be blind and ignorant to the facts and exhibitons of the wholeness of Nature.

    “Researchers”, especially University “Researchers”, exist most solely to create IP for large corporations, for new products for profit.

    This is becoming one of the biggest problems with the “organic” trend/fad. Just because we source certain specific (and limited) nutrients from natural sources, doesn’t account for the vast array of other necessary, natural processes.

    Humans are so incredibly ignorant of Nature. The profit-motive has destroyed our capacity for understanding and enlightenment.

  4. Grasspunk says:

    Corn is such a crazy crop since it is nearly all used for animal feed, ethanol or HFCS yet we think of it as sweetcorn for a meal.

    Corn crops with heavy N use are a short term gain in yield but a long term loss in soil quality, but that can be said for a lot of farming techniques.

    It is entertaining to see a discussion on farming techniques here. I gotta admit that I thought Secret Life of Plants was a bit hippie for me though.

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