USU recognizes life-sustaining research

When most people think of a food chain, they think of plants, animals eating those plants and predators devouring those animals. However, USU researchers are making groundbreaking discoveries that may affect the global food chain at the elemental level. Professor of chemistry and biochemistry Lance Seefeldt, along with other researchers from USU and around the country, has unlocked several mysteries surrounding how bacterial enzymes — known as nitrogenases — transform nitrogen into compounds essential for plants and animals to survive. “All life needs nitrogen,” Seefeldt said. “It’s part of our DNA, RNA and amino acids.” Nitrogen makes up 80 percent of the air we breathe, but it is not in a form animals and plants can directly use, Seefeldt said. Two methods exist to convert nitrogen into ammonia, which can be absorbed by plants and then transferred to the animals that eat them, he said. One of these methods is biological, he said, and uses nitrogenases. The other method is artificial and requires immense amounts of heat and pressure. This process, known as the Häber-Bosch process, currently uses two percent of the world’s oil, Seefeldt said. The world relies on both forms of nitrogen conversion for crop fertilizers, he said. However, he added that he would like his research to someday be used to develop more efficient and effective fertilizers. “It’s quite the irony,” he said. “We’re swimming in nitrogen, but it’s difficult to get our hands on it.”

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