Maize that fixes it’s own Nitrogen

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.

Source: The Indigenous Mexican Corn That Uses Air as Fertilizer – The Atlantic

Take 1: Holy crap this is cool. Corn is a huge staple grain, and requires a lot of off farm inputs to grow because it takes a lot of nutrients out of the ground.

Take 2: This maize matures in 8 months instead of 3 months for commercial corn. Interesting. Dr Sarah Taber pointed out on twitter that this is a really critical point. Nitrogen fixation takes a lot of energy, that has to come from somewhere. Modern varieties of maize might have had this bred out of them for a reason, so they put their energy into sugar and maturation instead of the ground. It may not be possible to keep this trait, and have the maize mature any faster.

This is important. Because the headlines for most articles on this make it sound like we’ve solved a hard problem in farm science and corn won’t need fertilizer in the future. That’s definitely not what the science says.

Take 3: The science behind verifying this is kind of amazing. You can’t tag nitrogen atoms to prove where they are coming from. So they did 5 different independent ways that each provide circumstantial evidence that the maize is actually doing this.

Take 4: The IP generated by this goes into the public trust. This is done under the Nagoya Protocol to address the very real concerns of bio-piracy by indigenous peoples. Good on them!

Take 5: The url of the Altantic piece is https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/08/amaizeballs/567140/. Yes, they really did go there.

Tell the Complicated Story

It turns out that one of the solutions to get us all to talk to each other is to stop simplifying the narratives we use:

After the conversation ends and the participants are separated, they each listen to audio of their conversations and report how they felt at each point. Over time, the researchers noticed a key difference between the terrible and non-terrible conversations: The better conversations looked like a constellation of feelings and points, rather than a tug of war. They were more complex.

But could that complexity be artificially induced? Was there a way to cultivate better conversations? To find out, the researchers started giving the participants something to read before they met — a short article on another polarizing issue. One version of the article laid out both sides of a given controversy, similar to a traditional news story — arguing the case in favor of gun rights, for example, followed by the case for gun control.

The alternate version contained all the same information — written in a different way. That article emphasized the complexity of the gun debate, rather than describing it as a binary issue. So the author explained many different points of view, with more nuance and compassion. It read less like a lawyer’s opening statement and more like an anthropologist’s field notes.

After reading the article, the two participants met to discuss Middle East peace — or another unrelated controversy. It turns out that the pre-conversation reading mattered: in the difficult conversations that followed, people who had read the more simplistic article tended to get stuck in negativity. But those who had read the more complex articles did not. They asked more questions, proposed higher quality ideas and left the lab more satisfied with their conversations. “They don’t solve the debate,” Coleman says, “but they do have a more nuanced understanding and more willingness to continue the conversation.” Complexity is contagious, it turns out, which is wonderful news for humanity.

Source: Complicating the Narratives – The Whole Story

The article calls for a new approach to journalism which makes sure to tell the complex story, and not the simple one. It’s full of very specific ways of doing this, and why telling a 2 sided story isn’t the same thing as a complicated one.

One of the things that struck me most was how much this was the same as the motivational interviewing / active listening that is part of Citizens’ Climate Lobby training. When we pull back from interactions all being high stakes winner take all, and more about mutual explorations, we make a lot more progress understanding each other.