More than 50 million years ago, the Arctic Ocean was the opposite of a frigid wasteland. It was a gigantic lake surrounded by lush greenery brimming with flora and fauna, thanks to the humidity and warm temperatures. Giant tortoises, alligators, rhinoceros-like animals, primates, and tapirs roamed through nearby forests in the Arctic.
This greenhouse utopia abruptly changed in the early Eocene period, when the Arctic Ocean became landlocked. A channel that connected the Arctic to the greater oceans got blocked. This provided a tiny fern called Azolla the perfect opportunity to colonize the layer of freshwater that formed on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The floating plants rapidly covered the water body in thick layers that resembled green blankets.
Gradually, Azolla colonies migrated to every continent with the help of repeated flooding events. For around a million years, they captured more than 80 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide that got buried at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean as billions of Azolla plants perished.
This “Arctic Azolla event” had devastating impacts on marine life. To date, scientists are trying to figure out how it ended. But they documented that the extraordinary event cooled down the Arctic by at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit — effectively freezing the poles and triggering several cycles of ice ages. “This carbon dioxide sequestration changed the climate from greenhouse to white house,” says Jonathan Bujak, a paleontologist who has researched the Arctic through expeditions since 1973.
Some farmers and scientists, such as Bujak, are looking to this ancient fern, which manipulated the Earth’s climate around 49 million years ago with its insatiable appetite for carbon dioxide, as a potential solution to our modern-day agricultural and environmental challenges. “There is no other plant like Azolla in the world,” says Bujak.
Decoding the Azolla plant
Azolla lives in symbiosis with a cyanobacterium called Anabaena that made the plant’s leaf cavities its permanent home at an early stage in Earth's history. This close relationship with Anabaena enables Azolla to accomplish a feat that is impossible for most plants: directly splitting dinitrogen molecules that make up 78 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.
A dinitrogen molecule consists of two nitrogen atoms tightly locked together in one of the strongest bonds in nature. The semi-aquatic fern’s ability to split nitrogen, called nitrogen-fixing, made it a highly revered plant in East Asia. Rice farmers used Azolla as a biofertilizer since the 11th century in Vietnam and China.
For decades, scientists have attempted to decode Azolla’s evolution. Cell biologist Francisco Carrapico, who worked at the University of Lisbon, has analyzed this distinctive symbiosis since the 1980s. To his amazement, in 1991, he found that bacteria are the third partner of the Azolla-Anabaena symbiosis.
“Azolla and Anabaena cannot survive without each other. They have co-evolved for 80 million years, continuously exchanging their genetic material with each other,” says Bujak, co-author of The Azolla Story, which he published with his daughter, Alexandra Bujak, an environmental scientist. Three different levels of nitrogen fixation take place within the plant, as Anabaena draws down as much as 2,200 pounds of atmospheric nitrogen per acre annually.
“Using Azolla to mitigate climate change might sound a bit too simple. But that is not the case,” Bujak says. “At a microscopic level, extremely complicated biochemical reactions are constantly occurring inside the plant’s cells that machines or technology cannot replicate yet.”
In 2018, researchers based in the U.S. managed to sequence Azolla’s complete genome — which is four times larger than the human genome — through a crowdfunded study, further increasing our understanding of this plant. “Azolla is a superorganism that works efficiently as a natural biotechnology system that makes it capable of doubling in size within three to five days,” says Carrapico.
Making Azolla mainstream again in agriculture
While scientific groups in the Global North have been working towards unraveling the tiny fern’s inner workings, communities in the Global South are busy devising creative ways to return to their traditional agricultural roots by tapping into Azolla’s full potential.
Pham Gia Minh, an entrepreneur living in Hanoi, Vietnam, is one such citizen scientist who believes that Azolla could be a climate savior. More than two decades after working in finance and business development, Minh is now focusing on continuing his grandfather’s legacy, an agricultural scientist who conducted Azolla research until the 1950s. “Azolla is our family’s heritage,” says Minh.
Pham Gia Minh, an entrepreneur and citizen scientist in Hanoi, Vietnam, believes that Azolla could be a climate savior
Pham Gia Minh
Since the advent of chemical fertilizers in the early 1900s, farmers in Asia abandoned Azolla to save on time and labor costs. But rice farmers in the country went back to cultivating Azolla during the Vietnam War after chemical trade embargoes made chemical fertilizers far too expensive and inaccessible.
By 1973, Azolla cultivation in rice paddy fields was established on half a million hectares in Vietnam. By injecting nitrogen into the soil, Azolla improves soil fertility and also increases rice yields by at least 27 percent compared to urea. The plants can also reduce a farm’s methane emissions by 40 percent.
“Unfortunately, after 1985, chemical fertilizers became cheap and widely available in Vietnam again. So, farmers stopped growing Azolla because of the time-consuming and labor-intensive cultivation process,” says Minh.
Minh has invested in a rural farm where he is proving that modern technology can make the process less burdensome. He uses a pump and drying equipment for harvesting Azolla in a small pond, and he deploys a drone for spraying insecticides and fertilizers on the pond at regular intervals.
As Azolla lacks phosphorus, farmers in developing countries still find it challenging to let go of chemical fertilizers completely. Still, Minh and Bujak say that farmers can use Azolla instead of chemical fertilizers after mixing it with dung.
In the last few years, the fern’s popularity has been growing in other developing countries like India, Palestine, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, where local governments and citizens are trying to re-introduce Azolla integrated farming by growing the ferns in small ponds.
Replacing soybeans with Azolla
In Ecuador, Mariano Montano Armijos, a former chemical engineer, has worked with Azolla for more than 20 years. Since 2008, he has shared resources and information for growing Azolla with 3,000 farmers in Ecuador. The farmers use the harvested plants as a bio-fertilizer and feed for livestock.
“The farmers do not use urea anymore,” says Armijos. “This goes against the conventional agricultural practices of using huge amounts of synthetic nitrogen on a hectare of rice or corn fields.”
He insists that Azolla’s greatest strength is that it is a rich source of proteins, making it highly nutritious for human beings as well. After growing Azolla on a small scale in ponds, Armijos and his business partner, Ivan Noboa, are now building a facility for cultivating the ferns as a superfood on an industrial scale.
According to Armijos, one hectare of Azolla in Ecuador can produce seven tons of proteins. Whereas soybeans produce only one ton of protein per hectare. “If we switch to Azolla, it could help in reducing deforestation in the Amazon. But taming Azolla and turning it into a crop is not easy,” he adds.
Henriette Schluepmann, a molecular plant biologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, believes that Azolla could replace soybeans and chemical fertilizers someday — only if researchers can achieve yield stability in controlled environments over long durations.
“In a country like the Netherlands that is surrounded by water with high levels of phosphates, it makes sense to grow Azolla as a substitute for soybeans,” says Schluepmann. “For that to happen, we need massive investments to understand these ferns’ reproductive system and how to replicate that within aquaculture systems on a large scale.”
Pollution control and carbon sequestration
Currently, Schluepmann and her team are growing Azolla in a plant nursery or closed system before transferring the ferns to flooded fields. So far, they have been able to continuously grow Azolla without any major setbacks for a total of 155 days. Taking care of these plants’ well-being is an uphill struggle.
Unlike most plants, Azolla does not grow from seeds because it contains female and male spores that tend to split instead of reproducing. To add to that, growing Azolla on a large scale in controlled environments makes the floating plants extremely vulnerable to insect infestations and fungi attacks.
“Even though it is easier to grow Azolla on a non-industrial scale, the long and tedious cultivation process is often in conflict with human rights,” she says. Farms in developing countries such as Indonesia sometimes use child labor for cultivating Azolla.”
History has taught us that the uncontrolled growth of Azolla plants deprives marine ecosystems of sunlight and chokes life underneath them. But researchers like Schluepmann and Bujak are optimistic that even on a much smaller scale, Azolla can put up a fight against human-driven climate change.
Schluepmann discovered an insecticide that can control Azolla blooms. But in the wild, this aquatic fern grows relentlessly in polluted rivers and lakes and has gained a notorious reputation as an invasive weed. Countries like Portugal and the UK banned Azolla after experiencing severe blooms in rivers that snuffed out local marine life.
“Azolla has been misunderstood as a nuisance. But in reality, it is highly beneficial for purifying water,” says Bujak. Through a process called phytoremediation, Azolla locks up pollutants like excess nitrogen and phosphorus and stops toxic algal blooms from occurring in rivers and lakes.
A 2018 study found that Azolla can decrease nitrogen and phosphorus levels in wastewater by 33 percent and 40.5 percent, respectively. While harmful algae like phytoplankton produce toxins and release noxious gases, Azolla automatically blocks any toxins that its cyanobacteria, Anabaena, might produce.
“In our labs, we observed that Azolla works effectively in treating wastewater,” explains Schluepmann. “Once we gain a better understanding of Azolla aquaculture, we can also use it for carbon capture and storage. But in Europe, we would have to use the entire Baltic Sea to make a difference.”
Planting massive amounts of these prehistoric ferns in any of the Northern great water bodies is out of the question. After all, history has taught us that the uncontrolled growth of Azolla plants deprives marine ecosystems of sunlight and chokes life underneath them. But researchers like Schluepmann and Bujak are optimistic that even on a much smaller scale, Azolla can put up a fight against human-driven climate change.
Traditional carbon capture and storage methods are not only expensive but also inefficient and could increase air pollution. According to Bujak’s estimates, Azolla can sequester 10 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare annually, which is 10 times the average capacity of grasslands.
“Anyone can set up their own DIY carbon capture and storage system by growing Azolla in shallow water. After harvesting and compressing the plants, carbon dioxide gets stored permanently,” says Bujak.
He envisions scaling up this process by setting up “Azolla hubs” in mega-cities where the plants are grown in shallow trays stacked on top of each other with vertical farming systems built within multi-story buildings. The compressed Azolla plants can then be converted into a biofuel, fertilizer, livestock feed, or biochar for sequestering carbon dioxide.
“Using Azolla to mitigate climate change might sound a bit too simple. But that is not the case,” Bujak adds. “At a microscopic level, extremely complicated biochemical reactions are constantly occurring inside the plant’s cells that machines or technology cannot replicate yet.”
Through Azolla, scientists hope to work with nature by tapping into four billion years of evolution.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
Every year, one in seven people in America comes down with a foodborne illness, typically caused by a bacterial pathogen, including E.Coli, listeria, salmonella, or campylobacter. That adds up to 48 million people, of which 120,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the variety of foods that can be contaminated with bacterial pathogens is growing too. In the 20th century, E.Coli and listeria lurked primarily within meat. Now they find their way into lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, causing periodic consumer scares and product recalls. Onions are the most recent suspected culprit of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
Some of these incidents are almost inevitable because of how Mother Nature works, explains Divya Jaroni, associate professor of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University. These common foodborne pathogens come from the cattle's intestines when the animals shed them in their manure—and then they get washed into rivers and lakes, especially in heavy rains. When this water is later used to irrigate produce farms, the bugs end up on salad greens. Plus, many small farms do both—herd cattle and grow produce.
"Unfortunately for us, these pathogens are part of the microflora of the cows' intestinal tract," Jaroni says. "Some farmers may have an acre or two of cattle pastures, and an acre of a produce farm nearby, so it's easy for this water to contaminate the crops."
Food producers and packagers fight bacteria by potent chemicals, with chlorine being the go-to disinfectant. Cattle carcasses, for example, are typically washed by chlorine solutions as the animals' intestines are removed. Leafy greens are bathed in water with added chlorine solutions. However, because the same "bath" can be used for multiple veggie batches and chlorine evaporates over time, the later rounds may not kill all of the bacteria, sparing some. The natural and organic producers avoid chlorine, substituting it with lactic acid, a more holistic sanitizer, but even with all these efforts, some pathogens survive, sickening consumers and causing food recalls. As we farm more animals and grow more produce, while also striving to use fewer chemicals and more organic growing methods, it will be harder to control bacteria's spread.
"It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives. But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end."
Luckily, bacteria have their own killers. Called bacteriophages, or phages for short, they are viruses that prey on bacteria only. Under the electron microscope, they look like fantasy spaceships, with oblong bodies, spider-like legs and long tails. Much smaller than a bacterium, phages pierce the microbes' cells with their tails, sneak in and begin multiplying inside, eventually bursting the microbes open—and then proceed to infect more of them. The best part is that these phages are harmless to humans. Moreover, recent research finds that millions of phages dwell on us and in us—in our nose, throat, skin and gut, protecting us from bacterial infections as part of our healthy microbiome. A recent study suggested that we absorb about 30 billion phages into our bodies on a daily basis. Now, ingeniously, they are starting to be deployed as anti-microbial agents in the food industry.
A Maryland-based phage research company called Intralytix is doing just that. Founded by Alexander Sulakvelidze, a microbiologist and epidemiologist who came to the United States from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Intralytix makes and sells five different FDA-approved phage cocktails that work against some of the most notorious food pathogens: ListShield for Listeria, SalmoFresh for Salmonella, ShigaShield for Shigella, another foodborne bug, and EcoShield for E.coli, including the infamous strain that caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 that killed four children and sickened 732 people across four states. Earlier this month, the FDA granted its approval to yet another Intralytix phage for managing Campylobacter contamination, named CampyShield. "We call it safety by nature," Sulakvelidze says.
Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder."
Photo credit: Living Radiant Photography
Phage preparations are relatively straightforward to make. In nature, phages thrive in any body of water where bacteria live too, including rivers, lakes and bays. "I can dip a bucket into the Chesapeake Bay, and it will be full of all kinds of phages," Sulakvelidze says. "Sewage is another great place to look for specific phages of interest, because it's teeming with all sorts of bacteria—and therefore the viruses that prey on them." In lab settings, Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder." Once phages multiply enough, they are harvested, dispensed into containers and shipped to food producers who have adopted this disinfecting practice into their preparation process. Typically, it's done by computer-controlled sprayer systems that disperse mist-like phage preparations onto the food.
Unlike chemicals like chlorine or antibiotics, which kill a wide spectrum of bacteria, phages are more specialized, each feeding on specific microbial species. A phage that targets salmonella will not prey on listeria and vice versa. So food producers may sometimes use a combo of different phage preparations. Intralytix is continuously researching and testing new phages. With a contract from the National Institutes of Health, Intralytix is expanding its automated high-throughput robot that tests which phages work best against which bacteria, speeding up the development of the new phage cocktails.
Phages have other "talents." In her recent study, Jaroni found that phages have the ability to destroy bacterial biofilms—colonies of microorganisms that tend to grow on surfaces of the food processing equipment, surrounding themselves with protective coating that even very harsh chemicals can't crack. "Phages are very clever," Jaroni says. "They produce enzymes that target the biofilms, and once they break through, they can reach the bacteria."
Convincing the FDA that phages were safe to use on food products was no easy feat, Sulakvelidze says. In his home country of Georgia, phages have been used as antimicrobial remedies for over a century, but the FDA was leery of using viruses as food safety agents. "It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives," Sulakvelidze says. "But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end." The agency had granted Intralytix its first approval in 2006, and over the past 10 years, the company's sales increased by over 15-fold. "We currently sell to about 40 companies and are in discussions with several other large food producers," Sulakvelidze says. One indicator that the industry now understands and appreciates the science of phages was that his company was ranked as Top Food Safety Provider in 2021 by Food and Beverage Technology Review, he adds. Notably, phage sprays are kosher, halal and organic-certified.
Intralytix's phage cocktails to safeguard food from bacteria are approved for consumers in addition to food producers, but currently the company sells to food producers only. Selling retail requires different packaging like easy-to-use spray bottles and different marketing that would inform people about phages' antimicrobial qualities. But ultimately, giving people the ability to remove pathogens from their food with probiotic phage sprays is the goal, Sulakvelidze says.
It's not the company's only goal. Now Intralytix is going a step further, investigating phages' probiotic and therapeutic abilities. Because phages are highly specialized in the bacteria they target, they can be used to treat infections caused by specific pathogens while leaving the beneficial species of our microbiome intact. In an ongoing clinical trial with Mount Sinai, Intralytix is now investigating a potential phage treatment against a certain type of E. coli for patients with Crohn's disease, and is about to start another clinical trial for treating bacterial dysentery.
"Now that we have proved that phages are safe and effective against foodborne bacteria," Sulakvelidze says, "we are going to demonstrate their potential in therapeutic applications."