NDSU Researcher Barney Geddes Receives prestigious FFAR New Innovator Award

Barney Geddes, PhD, an assistant professor of microbiological sciences at NDSU, has received a $450k New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research award from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR). Geddes is one of only nine researchers in the nation and the first at NDSU to receive this award

The funding will support Geddes’ nitrogen-producing microbe research, which holds promise in helping engineer cereal crops that can create their own nitrogen, thus limiting the need for the application of additional nitrogen fertilizer on crop production land.

NDSU President Dean Bresciani said the research fits well into the institution’s land grant mission. “This research holds great potential for food producers in North Dakota and across the globe drawing on a systems approach to growing their food crops. We are proud to have young researchers like Barney recognized on a national scale for their work.”

Application of nitrogen fertilizer to crop land has been a proven method of increasing crop yield for more than a century. Its use became widespread after Nobel Prize chemist Fritz Haber developed a process of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gas in the early 1900s.

Soon, manufactured nitrogen fertilizer became the normal method of increasing crop yield worldwide. The resulting increased crop productivity was not without problems. Geddes notes that less than 50 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops is used by the plants. The remaining nitrogen remains in the ground and can add to degradation of the soil by the creation of acidic conditions; the development of nitrates that can contaminate groundwater; or the addition of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In addition, as the cost of ammonia fertilizer has continued to rise, those increased fertilizer costs impact food costs. In some areas of the world, fertilizer may become so cost-prohibitive that it will impact the amount of food that can be produced.

Historically, producers have known that legumes such as soybeans, peanuts, alfalfa, and clovers have the ability to generate and fix nitrogen in the soil for both their own use and for other plants. This has led producers to a crop rotation cycle that includes legumes with cereal crops. Geddes’ research is part of a larger initiative to engineer other varieties of plants that have this same ability.

Legumes create nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing Rhizobia bacteria in the soil and much like a lock and key, each species of plant requires a specific strain of Rhizobia. Once it finds the right bacteria, the plant grows special nodules on its roots that allow the Rhizobia to enter and reside within it, where the bacteria generates nitrogen that the plant can absorb.

Geddes explains his work is targeted at better understand this relationship. “While other scientists are looking at how to engineer cereal crops with the ability to produce nitrogen in the same way that legumes do, our lab at NDSU is leading the way in figuring out the mechanisms that allow the plants and microbes to best work together.”

Because Rhizobium species are unique to hosts, the researchers first need to understand how to modify them so they will be accepted by the new hosts. Geddes likens this work to porting a mobile app that is written on one platform to an entirely different one. “Everything about the code has to be considered in order for the app to work in a different environment,” he says.

NDSU vice president of research and creative activity Colleen Fitzgerald said that earning the New Innovator award is an indication of the great potential Geddes’ work holds. “This FFAR award is a testament to the merit of Barney’s innovative and creative approach to addressing one of the major 21st century challenges of agriculture, sustainable and resilient food production.”

The FFAR New Innovator award is directed at scientists in the early years of their careers. Its purpose is to launch the careers of promising scientists whose research addresses significant food and agriculture challenges.

“Our New Innovator Awardees are pursuing creative, audacious research to overcome challenges to our food and agriculture system. Thanks to these awards, they have one less hurdle to achieving pioneering results,” said Lucyna Kurtyka, M.S. FFAR senior scientific program director.

FFAR was established in 2014. The Federal organization supports agriculture research activities focused on addressing key agriculture problems including plant health and production; agricultural economics and rural communities; and agricultural and food security.

Geddes’s lab is currently home to seven graduate and three undergraduate students and one postdoc assistant. Garrett Levin, a microbiology doctoral student said that the lab is a great environment for learning. “You can sense just how deeply Dr. Geddes enjoys science and teaching by his constant positivity, encouragement, and willingness to make time for each and every person who needs guidance in their research.”

Ahmad Al-Amad, a microbiology masters student adds, “Dr. Geddes has positively impacted my future career as a scientist to such a degree that the possibilities seem limitless.”

Geddes plans to add three more graduate students to the lab.

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