Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization— by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
The findings from 2008 to 2014 inspired Collins and his team to delve into how good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi can attack drug-resistant bacteria. In 2018, Collins and his team developed the engineered probiotic strategy. They tweaked a commonly found bacteria in yogurt called Lactococcus lactis.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
More scientists followed with more experiments. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, red and orange light waves become predominant, stimulating melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”
Could a tiny fern change the world — again?
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 Azollathe 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.