Scientists discover first algae that can fix nitrogen
July 7, 2024 6:25 PM   Subscribe

Here's the paper; unfortunately it, like the linked Nature article, is paywalled, but at least the abstract should be visible to non-AAAS members.
posted by multics at 6:41 PM on July 7

Oh, and here's the wikipedia article on UCYN-A, the critter in question; as that article implies (and to my extremely limited understanding) one of the really fascinating things about this is that we appear to have caught evolution in the process of turning something from an endosymbiont into an organelle, a rare and wondrous thing.
posted by multics at 6:52 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]

it appears that the link from the senior author's website gets you to the full publication in Science.
posted by logicpunk at 6:57 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]

Nature finds a way. awesome stuff.
posted by lalochezia at 7:49 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]

Something I've wondered for a while, if plants could broadly fix their own nitrogen directly from the atmosphere, what sort of implications would that have? Presumably any plant that figures that out would have a competitive advantage over others, and would only in practice be limited by other nutrients. In certain favorable locales, would there be a bit of a "green goo" scenario?
posted by tclark at 8:51 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]

Presumably any plant that figures that out would have a competitive advantage over others

On the time scale over which this kind of change happens, probably not. By the time any such advantage had had time to get consequential, the proteins whose formation the fixed nitrogen enabled in those plants would have become food for topsoil and the nitrogen fixation benefits would end up pretty widely shared around.

You can already see this kind of thing happening with plants like the legume family that have nitrogen fixing bacteria as symbionts. Planting clover in your lawn does not suddenly crowd out all the grasses and other lawn plants; rather, it makes the entire lawn ecosystem capable of thriving without requiring regular addition of nitrogenous fertilizer.
posted by flabdablet at 11:09 PM on July 7 [9 favorites]

Presumably any plant that figures that out would have a competitive advantage over others

Only if the evolutionary and energetic costs of having and expressing genes for fixing nitrogen are less than simply relying on other organisms to do the job.

There is no free lunch here; having this machinery comes with costs and means that such a plant will have less resources for other aspects of life, which may hurt its chances to survive and reproduce and pass its genes to offspring.

That you don't see plants having evolved this chemistry probably means that it has been easier for them to propagate, when they let other organisms do the work.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:54 AM on July 8 [3 favorites]

Also, while everything needs nitrogen, not all ecosystems spend most of their time nitrogen-limited. IIRC even legumes recruit a smaller mass of N fixing microbes when growing in available-N-rich soil.
posted by clew at 7:35 AM on July 8

but nitrogen ain't broke
posted by gurple at 8:36 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]

but nitrogen ain't broke

People need to stop breaking gas.
posted by run"monty at 9:52 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]

I suppose if making your own nutrients was 100% beneficial, we'd still be able to make our own vitamin C.
posted by fnerg at 11:46 AM on July 8 [3 favorites]

It's also interesting to compare and contrast this result with chariot's earlier post about Henneguya salminicola. It seems to (again, extremely naive) me that H. salminicola's relationship to its host is in some sense the dark, mirror image of UCYN-A's relationship to Braarudosphaera bigelowii. Great pair of posts, chariot pulled by cassowaries!
posted by multics at 2:14 PM on July 8

People need to stop breaking gas.

...and discover that the real fuel was the nitrogen they fixed along the way...
posted by CynicalKnight at 2:18 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

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