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Recommended Soil Health Measures

The Soil Health Institute recently published recommended metrics for assessing soil health. The institute recommends a minimum suite of three measures to be applied widely across North America – soil organic carbon concentration, carbon mineralization potential and aggregate stability.

Soil organic carbon is a key component of soil organic matter. It influences the available water holding capacity, nutrients, biodiversity, structure and other important properties of the soil.

The potential for carbon mineralization reflects the size and structure of microbial communities in the soil. It influences nutrient availability, soil aggregation and resilience to changing climatic conditions.

Overall stability describes the strength with which soil particles stick together. This determines whether heavy rain will seep into soil or run off a landscape, carrying with it nutrients that affect water quality. Soil aggregates also influence erosion, aeration, root growth and therefore plant nutrient uptake.

While the three metrics provide a minimal suite of metrics that are broadly applicable to assess soil health, additional metrics may be included depending on the goals of the landowner or researcher, the Soil Health Institute said.

“Adding soil texture to the list of measurements allows us to calculate the available water-holding capacity of a soil,” said Dianna Bagnall, soil research scientist at the institute. “We can then show farmers how much extra water they can store by increasing carbon and improving soil health.

Because management does not change soil texture, it only needs to be measured once, the Soil Health Institute said.

With support from the Food and Agriculture Research Foundation, the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, and General Mills, the Soil Health Institute led a three-year, $6.5 million project to identify effective measures soil health. The institute has partnered with more than 100 scientists at 124 long-term agricultural research sites in the United States, Canada and Mexico, where conventional management systems were compared to health-enhancing systems soils.

Visit institutdelasantedusol.org and seek “North American project” for more information.

Companies are developing protein-rich soy ingredients

Archer Daniels Midland and Benson Hill Inc. recently formed a strategic partnership to scale soy-based ingredients to meet growing demand for plant-based protein. ADM will process and market a portfolio of ingredients derived from Benson Hill’s ultra-protein soy through an exclusive North American licensing partnership.

The collaboration will scale Benson Hill genetics-enabled ingredients that contain less processed protein with significant water and carbon sustainability benefits, the companies said.

Leticia Gonçalves, president of ADM’s global food business, said sales of meat and dairy alternatives are expected to grow at an annual rate of 14%, reaching $125 billion by 2030. ADM has expanded its global capacity to meet demand with the acquisition of Sojaprotein. The company also plans to build a protein solutions innovation center in Decatur, Illinois.

Benson Hill’s CropOS technology platform brings together data analytics and biological insights to combine a plant’s genetic information, a customer’s formulation needs and farmer data to help develop ingredients. Combined with ADM’s capabilities in origination, applications and formulation as well as processing capability for food markets, the collaboration is expected to result in the commercial scale production of alternative protein products. Visit adm.com and bensonhill.com for more information.

Formation of a coalition for the bioeconomy

Several agricultural associations have recently launched the Ag Bioeconomy Coalition. Their mission is to advance federal policy initiatives to foster growth toward a circular economy based on innovative products derived from agricultural raw materials.

The agricultural bioeconomy uses renewable bio-based materials as inputs to manufacture chemicals and products such as fuels, manufacturing materials and consumer goods. The industry offers an opportunity to harness the full potential of the U.S. agriculture sector, support supply chain resilience and help address environmental issues, the coalition said. Several associations are founding members of the coalition.

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  • National Association of State Departments of Agriculture
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  • Plant-Based Products Council

Using bio-based products reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 12.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year, according to the US Department of Agriculture. That’s equivalent to taking 2.7 million cars off the road a year, the coalition said.

The national bioproducts industry adds more than $470 billion in value to the economy and supports 4.6 million jobs. Between 2013 and 2017, the industry grew by more than 27% in terms of added value, the coalition said.

The coalition’s policy priorities include supporting market transparency and visibility initiatives that facilitate common naming and measurement of the agricultural bioeconomy. The coalition also focuses on promoting ways in which government entities can support bioeconomy research and development. Visit nasda.org/agbioeconomycoalition for more information.

Fossil fuels remain dominant

Fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal – accounted for 79% of the 97 quadrillion British thermal units – quads – of primary energy consumption in the United States in 2021. Around 21% of primary energy consumption in 2021 came from other sources such as renewables and nuclear, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Monthly Energy Review.

The 4-fold increase in U.S. primary energy consumption in 2021 was the largest annual increase on record and was driven primarily by a gradual return to pre-COVID-19 pandemic activity levels. The increase in 2021 follows a 7-fold decrease in 2020, which was the largest annual decrease on record.

Renewable energy consumption increased slightly from 11.5 quads in 2020 to a record 12.2 quads in 2021. Increased use of renewables for power generation, such as wind and solar, was partially offset by a drop in hydroelectricity production. U.S. nuclear power consumption totaled 8.2 quads in 2020, the least since 2012.

Petroleum has been the most consumed primary energy source since overtaking coal in 1950. Petroleum consumption remains below its 2005 peak, totaling 35 quads in 2021. Natural gas consumption totaled 31, 3 quads in 2021, a slight decrease compared to the previous year. Visit eia.gov and search for “Monthly energy balance” for more information.

“Nano-robot” explores cells

Building a tiny robot out of deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA – and using it to study cellular processes invisible to the naked eye… we’d be forgiven for thinking that’s science fiction. But it is the subject of serious research by scientists from Inserm, CNRS and the University of Montpellier. A “nano-robot” should make it possible to study more closely the mechanical forces applied at microscopic levels.

Cells are subjected to mechanical forces, triggering biological signals essential to many cellular processes involved in the normal functioning of the organism or in the development of diseases. For example, the sensation of touch is partly conditioned by the application of mechanical forces on specific cell receptors.

Receptors sensitive to mechanical forces – called mechanoreceptors – also regulate other biological processes such as the constriction of blood vessels, the perception of pain, breathing or even the detection of sound waves in the ear.

Cellular mechanosensitivity dysfunction is implicated in many diseases. Cancer cells, for example, migrate through the body by constantly probing and adapting to the mechanical properties of their microenvironment. Such adaptation is only possible because specific forces are detected by mechanoreceptors which transmit information to the cellular cytoskeleton.

Knowledge of the molecular mechanisms involved in cellular mechanosensitivity is still limited. Several technologies are already available to apply controlled forces and study mechanisms, but they have limitations.

To propose an alternative, the research team led by Inserm researcher Gaëtan Bellot decided to use the DNA origami method. It allows the self-assembly of 3D nanostructures in a predefined form using the DNA molecule as the building material. Over the past 10 years, the technique has enabled major advances in the field of nanotechnology.

This allowed the researchers to design a “nano-robot” made up of three DNA origami structures. It’s compatible with the size of a human cell. It makes it possible to apply and control a force with a resolution of 1 piconewton, or one trillionth of a Newton – one Newton corresponding to the force of a finger clicking on a pen. It is considered the first time that a man-made, self-assembled DNA object can apply force with such precision.

The team started by coupling the robot to a molecule that recognizes a mechanoreceptor. This made it possible to direct the robot towards certain cells and specifically apply forces to targeted mechanoreceptors located on the surface of the cells to activate them.

Such a tool could be used to better understand the molecular mechanisms involved in cellular mechanosensitivity and discover new cellular receptors sensitive to mechanical forces. Thanks to the robot, scientists will be able to study more precisely when, during the application of force, the key signaling pathways of many biological and pathological processes are activated at the cellular level.

The research is described in Nature Communications. Visit nature.com and seek Gaetan Bellot for more information.

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