In February of 2022 Vladimir Putin deployed a military occupation of Ukraine due to his alleged fears of Ukraine potentially becoming a member of NATO. This act of aggression has displaced millions of people from their homes in Ukraine, caused massive inflation on the world’s economy, and resulted in more than 350,000 casualties. One key crop that much of the world imports from both Ukraine and Russia, is grains. The two countries account for almost one-third (30%) of the world’s grain production. Grains produced by Ukraine include wheat, corn, barley, sunflower seeds, rapeseed, soybeans, and oats.

Much of the wheat produced by Ukraine is red winter wheat. This wheat is mainly utilized for the production of bread products. Myself being from the southeast portion of the United States, I cannot resist white gravy over some buttermilk handmade biscuits. It is an unhealthy treat. I consider myself much happier for indulging. For my wife, her wheat-based fascination would be cinnamon rolls or blueberry muffins. My 2-year-old son also takes pleasure in his daily snack of a nutri-grain fruit bar. One of the main ingredients fo white gravy is indeed wheat flour, which as you probably guessed, contains about 75% wheat. Who can forget everyone’s favorite movie snack, popcorn. Corn has an abundance of additional uses, including ethanol-based fuel and plastics.

Because of Russia’s actions, Ukraine’s grain exports can no longer be exported via one of Russia’s sea ports, reducing the world’s supply of grains and increasing costs. With the world’s economy reeling, it’s time to implement changes that will increase global availability grains. A huge corrective measure could be found through the biotechnology process referred to as “nitrogen-fixing”. Crops like wheat, corn, and rice utilize fertilizers to produce nitrogen. These nitrogen sources include manure, compost, and chemical fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers are more often used than organics due to their cheaper cost and greater yield.

The majority of chemical fertilizers produced today utilize the Haber-Borsch process, which relies heavily on fossil fuels for production. In its most common formulation, the process uttilizes fifty-percent natural gas, thirty-one percent oil, and nineteen percent coal. There are alternate Haber-Borsch process that utilize solar energy instead of fossil fuels, but solar energy isn’t as readily available. As you can imagine, there are numerous environmental and economic concerns posed by the Haber-Borsch process. The heavy reliance of fossil fuels increases carbon emissions, and the chemical runoff pollutes nearby rivers and oceans. This results in about $157 billion dollars spent by the United States government each year towards clean-up efforts.

One crop capable of producing its own supply of nitrogen is legumes. This superpower mitigates the need for external sources of nitrogen, thus reducing the use of the Haber-Bosch process. I’ve always wondered why beans and hummus always produce a massive source of flatulence. Now I can rest easy knowing it is because they are full of hot air, nitrogen. Starting in 2016, an MIT research group in the Voigt lab of the Department Of Biological Engineering was provided with two grants for research on transforming grain-based crops to be able to “fix” their own nitrogen. According to the Voigt lab researchers, the answer to nitrogen-fixing grains are found in nif genes possessed by the legumes.

The research pertaining to nitrogen-fixing crops is still on-going. The Voigt lab team is working on rebuilding diverse functions of 20 genes, give or take, to potentially transfer them between organisms (legumes and grains). The research could lead to significant improvements in the quality and yield of grain-based crops if successfully implemented. More importantly, the reliance of non-renewable energy sources and chemical run-off could be mitigated as these grain-based crops would no longer rely on chemical fertilizers for a source of nitrogen. If nitrogen-fixed, more nations would be able to reliably produce corn, wheat, and other grains. This would also allow for cheaper costs of grain-based products as the global supply would likely increase as a result. Hopefully the Voigt Lab in the Department of Biological Engineering can implement this potential solution soon.