Nitrous Oxide Research Alliance (NORA)
Its a training network based on a common understanding that we need to intensify exposure to, and direct interactions between, traditional disciplines to make progress in nitrogen cycle research.
New approaches needed; bridging between disciplines
The invention of strategies to reduce emissions of N2O through traditional agronomic/ecosystem N2O emission research has not been successful. The approaches have been largely empirical (flux measurements), and the community involved in this research has been unable to benefit from progress made in basic research on the regulatory biology and ecophysiology of the microbes involved in N2O production. This is partly because the conceptual and mathematical models used in ecosystem research are too crude to assimilate such knowledge (Bakken and Dörsch 2007 1), but also because of lack of exposure to the relevant basic research.
Advances in research into the physiology of N2O production have been paralleled by enormous progress in the exploration of microbial ecology of the responsible microorganisms, through the application of molecular techniques. Analysis of community DNA and the kinetics of functional gene expression are breaking long-standing barriers to understanding and predicting microbial processes, and have the potential to transform microbial ecology from its present descriptive approach to a ‘hard', ‘quantitative' science. However, much current research involves accumulation of descriptive data, without stringent questions and hypotheses.
Basic research on the biochemistry and regulatory biology of relevant microbial nitrogen transformations (nitrification and denitrification) has made ground breaking progress in unravelling the "nuts and bolts" (functional enzymes, regulatory networks, van Spanning et al 20072 ). The vast amount of knowledge accumulated is fertile ground for computational biological approaches to understand phenotype-genotype relationships, enabling cross fertilization between biochemistry/regulatory biology and microbial ecology research. This approach is in its infancy, partly because the task is daunting, but also because of the tendency for disciplinary researchers to avoid exposure to disciplines other than their own.
The current network is based on a common understanding that we need to intensify exposure to, and direct interactions between, traditional disciplines to make progress in nitrogen cycle research. We are convinced that computational biology will emerge as an extremely useful common approach, transforming interdisciplinary science from a masochistic exercise to an operational pleasure.
Private sector opportunities
Industrial processes have become increasingly important in the human nitrogen cycle, along with the development of agronomic technologies and urbanization of the society. Nitrogen environmental issues are traditionally seen as economic externalities to industry and agriculture, but the development of technologies to tackle these issues is increasingly considered as a new and fertile area for establishment of viable industries:
- Technology for handling nitrogen issues has given rise to new private enterprises (consultancy and wastewater technology).
- Technology for precision farming is a promising area for industrial R&D
- The market for instrumentation of environmental monitoring and analyses is large and expanding as novel approaches are developed. Robotization of such instrumentation is a new and promising area.
- Life cycle analyses (LCA) have become an industrial standard, used to explore options to improve the environmental profiles of single products and whole companies.
In summary; industrial R&D is increasingly involved with nitrogen cycle issues, and there is considerable and increasing potential for collaboration between industry and academic research in this area. At present, however, there is a lack of appropriately trained researchers to realize this potential. REBEC draws on expertise and R&D commitments within the fertilizer (Yara) and environmental and wastewater industries (Bioclear, Paques) to develop N2O research in collaboration with academia and other industries with complementary competence (Adigo for robotization of field fluxes, NCMBI for culture collections of key strains). The planned REBEC network has already received great interest from a number of stakeholders from both the public and private sectors in several European countries, demonstrated in letters of support (attachments) and commitment to participate in a conference arranged within the framework of the network.
1. Bakken LR, Dörsch P (2007) Nitrous oxide emission and global changes: modelling approaches. Chapter 25 in Biology of the Nitrogen Cycle, Bothe H, Ferguson SJ, Newton WE (eds).pp 382-395 Elsevier (Amsterdam).
2. Van Spanning RJM, Richardson D, Ferguson S (2007) Introduction to the biochemistry and molecular biology of denitrification. Chapter 1 in Biology of the Nitrogen Cycle, Bothe H, Ferguson SJ, Newton WE (eds).pp 382-395 Elsevier (Amsterdam).
The overarching scientific goal is to improve our understanding and predictive ability with regard to the ecology and regulatory biology of microbes involved in oxidation and reduction of mineral N species affecting atmospheric N2O. Sub-goals are:
- Improved understanding of regulatory networks in denitrification model strains (systems biology).
- Systematic characterization of regulatory responses of organisms isolated from habitats (key strains) and relationships between genotypes and regulatory phenotypes
- Characterization and quantification of relationships between microbial community function and composition, and how these are affected by environmental factors
- Translation of increased understanding to generate qualitative and quantitative predictive capacity in assessing the influence of environmental factors and land management strategies on nitrous oxide emissions.
The training goal is to produce a new generation of nitrogen researchers, within both academic and private sectors, with inter- and cross-disciplinary skills and understanding and appreciation of both fundament science and its direct application to environmental, industrial and societal issues. Sub-goals are:
- Cross-disciplinary education of experimentalists and modellers to provide seamless and unencumbered communication and integration of respective approaches in research
- Increased creative, innovative and imaginative research through exposure to, and appreciation of concepts and approaches of other disciplines
- Ability to direct fundamental research towards specific applied goals, through direct involvement (including secondments) with industrial and agronomic researchers
- Better informed applied research through training in cutting edge fundamental research
The impact goal is to exploit the power of fundamental scientific understanding, developed through interdisciplinary research and close interactions between academia, industry and policy makers, to generate specific recommendations, strategies and solutions to reduce nitrous oxide emissions. Specific goals are to:
- invent novel approaches to reduce N2O:N2 product ratios in various ecosystems
- test the validity of such approaches at scales ranging from the cellular level to ecosystems
- strengthen the momentum and value of European industries in nitrogen issues generally, and N2O-mitigations specifically provide strategies, guidelines and evidence-based recommendations for mitigation of N2O emissions
- Norwegian University of Life Sciences
- University of East Anglia
- Vrije Universiteit (Free University) Amsterdam
- Delft University of Technology, Netherlands
- The University Court of the University of Aberdeen
- Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
- University of Gothenburg
- Yara International
- Adigo AS
- NCI MB Ltd
- Waterboard Aa en Maas, The Netherlands
- Paques, The Netherlands
How it works
To find out more visit the NORA website.