Photo by Paul Starosta / Getty Images
This is the story of a tiny water fern called Azolla filiculoides. I came across this little plant critter in this article from Inverse magazine.
The article refers to a research project (and there are many projects based on this plant) in which scientists were able to sequence the genome of this species. That article, from Nature, is available here: Fern genomes elucidate land plant evolution and cyanobacterial symbioses
Having done this sequencing brings scientists one step closer to “understanding some of the crazy biology of these particular species”, according to Dr. Carl Rothfels, a co-author of the Nature article. From that article:
Rothfels says that one of the most “extraordinary features” of this fern is its ability to have a symbiotic relationship with cyanobacteria, which in turn gives it the ability to “fix” nitrogen. Nitrogen fixation is the process by which plants use the chemical element as a fertilizer: Most plants typically can’t do this alone, but the blue-green cyanobacteria that live in the Azolla leaves allow for this process to happen. In turn, Azolla can sustain rapid growth in favorable conditions.
That’s important for multiple reasons, the first being that the fern shows “great promise as a biofuel,” says Rothfels. While it’s been used as a fertilizer for rice paddies in Asia for the past 1,000 years, he and his team are now curious to know whether it could be used as a sustainable fertilizer elsewhere. Its ability to help agricultural crops is compounded by its resistance to pests: Farmers have noticed for decades that bugs generally don’t like ferns, and now the sequencing of the Azolla genome reveals it carries certain genetic mutations that allow it to repel insects.
Azolla is more than 1,000 years old. Much, much older, in fact. About 50 million years ago, there was a huge “bloom” of this fern that may have reduced the CO2 in our atmosphere and helped cool of the earth. To understand this, have a look at this brief video:
Or have a look at this one:
The fern did it (reduce CO2 in the atmosphere and reduce the Earth’s temperature) then – could it do it again? And even if not, are there other things about this crazy fern that could help us out?
One project that considers the use of this fern as a way to help farmers in Bangladesh, is being done at Colorado State University. See that video here:
It also has some pretty fascinating fertilization capabilities – see this video:
But the real exciting idea here is using Azolla to fight climate change by becoming a carbon sink.
From the article “Using Plants to Fight Climate Change”:
Azolla is a genus of seven species of tiny aquatic ferns that can resemble moss or algae at first glance. This specialized plant grows on the surface of freshwater and forms a symbiotic relationship with a cyanobacteria that fixes atmospheric nitrogen, which gives the azolla easy access to this essential nutrient and allowing for rapid growth in ideal conditions. But one of the most impressive skills of the azolla fern is its ability to draw down as much as 6 tonnes per acre of carbon dioxide per acre per year, in addition to a tonne of nitrogen per acre per year. With these powers, the azolla fern could be a major player in slowing down or even reversing climate change.
In the previous videos you’ve seen that much of the power of this fern comes from a symbiosis with a bacteria called Anabaena. This is called Nitrogen Fixation, something that’s worth learning about – and it’s doesn’t take a degree in biochemistry. I found a very short and informative video that explains this:
Some of the most fascinating projects – and plants – are all around us!