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.