A Tiny Water Fern Could Positively Impact Our Environment


A very small fern that grows in water could help lower the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, fix nitrogen in agriculture and even keep insects away from crops. Scientists at the Boyce Thompson Institute sequenced the full genome of the fern and found out interesting facts about the plant.

It’s called Azolla filiculoides and it it’s a water fern that usually fertilizes rice paddies in Asia.

The lead author of the study, Fay-Wei Li and a plant evolutionary biologist at BTI, wrote in the findings in the study “Fern Genomes Elucidate Land Plant Evolution and Cyanobacterial Symbioses.”

Li explains the plant’s ancestry:

“Fifteen million years ago, Earth was a much warmer place. Azolla, this fast-growing bloom that once covered the Arctic Circle, pulled in 10 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from our planet’s atmosphere, and scientists think it played a key role in transitioning Earth from a hot house to the cool place it is today.”

Along with senior author Kathleen M. Pryer (Duke University), Li and an international group of other 40 scientists sequenced the genome of the plant. While sequencing the genome, scientists saw that the fern had specific genes that made it resistant to insects. Li explains why insects don’t like ferns:

“It’s a naturally modified gene, and now that we’ve found it, it could have huge implications for agriculture,” adding that one of the fern’s genes could have been transferred from a bacterium.

A Symbioses That Could Benefit Agriculture and the Environment

Plants use nitrogen as a fertilizer, but they cannot fix the chemical element by themselves. Li said that a blue-green phylum of bacteria called cyanobacteria obtains energy through photosynthesis and produce oxygen. The Azolla lead contains cyanobacteria, which helps it fix nitrogen, and the plant gives the bacteria sugary fuel. Basically, the fern and the bacteria have a symbiotic relationship.

Li explains that “this first genomic data from ferns” helps scientists “gain vital intelligence for understanding plant genes,” concluding that they can then research its properties to see if the plant is a sustainable fertilizer and if it could “gather carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”


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