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Bacterium named after Scottish scientist could improve fertility of poor soils

Professors Sprent, Van Wyk and Howieson examine a Lebeckia plant © J Sprent
By adding combined nitrogen to infertile sands through a legume that provides high quality forage for sheep grazing, this new species may provide a model that can be used in other regions.

A newly discovered species of nitrogen-fixing bacterium named after a James Hutton Institute Honorary Research Fellow is part of a thrust for the development of sustainable agriculture on poor soils.

Burkholderia sprentiae, named after Professor Janet Sprent, occurs in the root nodules of Lebeckia ambigua, a hardy legume that grows on very poor soils in South Africa and which is now being developed for use in south-west Western Australia – a major farming area which has experienced a decline in annual rainfall in the last 30 years. It will grow on soils that can support very few other plants.

The bacterium was isolated by a team of researchers from Murdoch University (Australia) and Ghent University (Belgium), with participation of the Department of Agriculture of Western Australia, and their findings were published on the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

Professor Sprent said: “Nitrogen is essential for life as we know it. It amounts to about 79% of the air we breathe. However, the vast majority of living organisms cannot access this nitrogen gas directly, and it has to be made available to them, or ‘fixed’, by micro-organisms.

“By adding combined nitrogen to infertile sands through a legume that provides high quality forage for sheep grazing, this new species is one that will help to extend the area of usable land and may provide a model that can be used in other regions. The plant has huge potential, as it was able to produce high quality forage on difficult soils with scattered rainfall events in Western Australia during 2011-2013.”

Lebeckia ambigua has been described as the “next big thing” in legume crops for dry infertile soils. It was discovered by Professor John Howieson (Murdoch University, Australia) in South Africa in association with Professor Ben-Erik Van Wyk (University of Johannesburg, South Africa).

Professor Sprent has worked on legumes for over 40 years, with publications from all continents, and holds an Emeritus Professorship from the University of Dundee.

Notes to editors

Professor Janet Sprent is an Honorary Research Fellow of the James Hutton Institute and Emeritus Professor of Plant Biology at the University of Dundee. Professor Sprent has over 40 years' experience of plant science research, with particular interest in symbiotic nitrogen fixation. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, she was awarded an OBE in 1996 for services to science and education. In 2002, her research in the field of ecology was recognised with an Honorary Membership of the British Ecological Society. She retired from the Board of Scottish Natural Heritage in March 2007. Among former appointments, she was a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and a member of RERAD Strategic Scientific Advisory Panel, Chairman of Governors of Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, a member of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, a Council member of the Natural Environment Research Council, and Deputy Principal of the University of Dundee. With publications and collaborations across the world, Professor Sprent's research continues and her current special interest is in evolution of the Leguminosae.

Paper: Burkholderia sprentiae sp. nov., isolated from Lebeckia ambigua root nodules, by researchers Sofie E. De Meyer, Margo Cnockaert, Julie K. Ardley, Garth Maker, Ron Yates, John G. Howieson and Peter Vandamme, was published on the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology.

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Printed from /news/bacterium-named-after-scottish-scientist-could-improve-fertility-poor-soils on 20/11/19 12:52:24 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.