Tales from the hidden half of Nature
Graeme Sait from Australia, a long time participant of Acres and author of the free internet book ‘Nutrition Rules’, gave a presentation for a group of environmental activistis in Los Angeles City Hall last year ( 1 ). He was surprised to learn about the ignorance of that group for things like Humus and Glomalin just to mention two important components of our soil and two of the main sites of carbon fixation on Earth and due to this fact, two important entities to be considered and therefore defended if we all want to really save this planet.
He was even more surprised because the etymology of the word Humus, which means from the hearth and from the soil, is the same as Human that means from the Earth (Terra) and for the Earth. That alone should give us a glance of how divorced most people are nowadays from the soil as the source of their life and their food.
I wonder what would have been his reaction if names like Mycorrhizal fungi (Endo and Ecto), Free living Nitrogen fixing bacteria, Simbiotic (Root Nodule) bacteria, Nitrogenase, and Soil Food Web would have been asked to those same activists.
The truth is that the majority of people doesn’t take into consideration whatever they cannot see. Since Saint Thomas time that ‘Seeing Is Believing’, and therefore its negative form might also be case: ‘If I don’t see why should I believe ?’
Even though we cannot see those minute beings and substances they are of paramount importance to Carbon Fixation, life in the soil and consequently and ultimately to our own survival in this planet. These microbes and underground substances along with Photosynthesis are the key responsible for the very existence of life on Earth and therefore should be recognized, evidenced and even revered as essencial for the maintemance of life in our planet.
It is estimated that plants started harvesting sun light’s energy some 3.5 billion of years ago which gave the opportunity that carbohidrates would have been created but it was not untill another 1 million years after this event that a few bacteria acquired the capacity to “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere into Ammonium (NH4) molecules, thereby making possible the synthesis of amino acids, proteins and DNA itself which allowed plants and animals to be created and to evolve.
All life forms existent on Earth depends on this group of prokaryote (bacteria and archea) to convert atmospheric nitrogen to a form that we can all utilize.
Even though nitrogen is abundant in the atmosphere (nearly 78%) no other bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa and plant cannot utilize it in the form of gas. From the total of tenths of thousands of bacteria present in soil and oceans, only around 200 of them have this unique capacity and from those only as few as 20 genes have been so far identified with the capability of synthesizing and controlling Nitrogenase ( 2 ).
Strange at it might be, we owe these 200 bacteria our very life and the reason for that is because the N2, nitrogen gas, is strongly connected to each other by one of the strongest chemical bouds in Nature. This chemical triple bound is extremely strong and cannot be broken apart very easily.
To break apart a N2 molecule is necessary that a very speciallized enzyme named NITROGENASE come into action. Wolfe said that Nitrogenase is a giant among all the enzymes either literally (it is a huge and complex molecule) as well as for its importance in global biogeochemistry ( 2 ).
In order to have a glance on how Nitrogenase works and of its size and complexity lets imagine a bowl of spaghetti. Nitrogenase would be equivalent at two bowls of spaghetti in its configuration. It is made of two giant proteins that come together and then separates back again, 8 times in a period of 1.2 seconds, in order to convert one molecule of N2 into NH4 (ammonium) which is a more usable molecule by living organisms. Those twists and turns of the nitrogenase molecule with various electrical charges configurations allows N2 gas to be held in place while other molecules, such as water, are carefully brought into proper position to stimulate chemical interaction very much like of what would be the correspondent of a biochemical and molecular Jiu Jitsu. Nitrogenase really submits N2 and breaks it apart.
For those of us who are concerned about Nature’s flagility it might seem a little bit worrying to know that there are no more than a few pounds ( a few kilograms ) of this very precious enzyme on this entire planet. The entire world’s supply of Nitrogenase could fit into a single bucket ! Loose this and all the life on Earth as we know it would come to a halt. Luckly for us this “bucket” is safely taken care of by God’s hand.
This fact alone demonstrate the importance of the nitrogen fixing organisms for the integrity of the environment on Earth and that we should work hard to make people and legislators understand this whole situation and to act accordingly to protect this precious asset.
Literaly, all the nitrogen that exist in the proteins and DNA inside our bodies have been channeled to us by the nitrogen-fixing bacteria at one time or another. To those microbes and to Nitrogenase we owe the existence of life on Earth and consequently our own very existence.
What would be the significance of all that information above ?
To start with, all the chemical reactions occur in fractions of a second or nanoseconds. The duration of 1.2 seconds is 1,000 times bigger than the average duration of most biochemical reactions. Therefore, it is slow by biochemical standards and one of the reasons being the strong triple bound connecting the two N atoms firmly together.
This is also the reason why the industrial process of transforming atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia ( Haber-Bosch Synthesis, Nobel Prize of Chemistry in 1918 and 1931) requires a tremendous amount of energy and by itself is one of the responsibles for the fact that conventional agriculture has a nearly negative energy balance and one of the reasons why this kind of agriculture, which is totally chemicalized, is a tremendous failure disguised behind terms like ‘Agribusiness’ which were coined to describe a supposedly succesful activity.
Dr. Arden Andersen have written extensively about this aspect of conventional agriculture as early as 1989 (4).
Today it is well known that Conventional Agriculture has been a total flaw in all aspects namely energetic, environmental, toxicological, social and, as recent research is demonstrating, also nutritional.
One important point that we need always to remember is that if conventional agriculture is apparently doing well is because it is harvesting what Jerry Brunetty have named “The Prehistoric Sun” which are fossil fuels represented by the Jurassic photosynthesis ( 3 ).
The beauty of Nitrogenase lies in the fact that it is capable of doing exactly the same thing that Haber-Bosch Synthesis does with an energy consumption infinitely smaller. However, when it is compared to biochemical standards you see that nitrogenase “spends” more energy than other processes and because of that free living nitrogen fixing bacteria, like Azospirillum , Azotobacter, etc.. must obtain this energy from its surroundings in the form of carbohidrates and other molecules and therefore are in clear disadvantage compared to other soil organisms while the simbiotic nitrogen fixing bacteria like Rhizobium and Bradyrhizobium can get the energy they need directly from the plant root exudates.
Some of those important soil assimbiotic nitrogen fixing bacteria have been isolated and identified by a remarkable german woman, Dr. Johanna Döbereiner, who came to Brazil as a refugee after graduating in Agronomy from Freising-Weihenstephan, Munich in 1950 right after the WWII . She went to the University of Winsconsin, Madison in 1963 to get her M.Sc. degree and stayed sometime at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. She held two “Honoris Causa” Doctor Diplomas. One of them from the University of Florida and have authored more than 500 scientific papers and received several tributes and honous throughout her productive scientific life ( 9 ).
Probably the biggest homage to her work has been an informal one done by Dr. Normam Bourlang, Nobel Prize recipient, when he visited her lab in Brazil. He is quoted as saying on the ocasion: ‘What you have accomplished here is greater than what I have done there’. She was nominated for the Nobel prize in 1997 ( 9 ).
German and Mexican scientists have named two of those organisms after her, i.e. Clunonacetobacter johanne and Azospirillum doebereinerae and herself have proposed the new name for the genus Spirillum after she discovered they were able to fix nitrogen and were renamed as Azospirillum. The now widely used nitrogen fixing bacteria in Brazil and Australia, Azospirillum brasiliense, is one of the several organisms isolated and classified by her.
Because she insisted that Brazil should have soybeans varieties well adapted to simbiotic nitrogen fixation as opposed to the maistream scientific american thinking of using high doses of chemical nitrogen, that country is today one of the largest soybean producers and has probably the lowest production cost among soybean growing countries. Brazil saves annualy around US$ 2 billion in chemical nitrogen fertilizers due to her foresight and soybean growers in Brazil have no subsidy from the government as they do in the Unites States.
Interestingly enough this lady is barely known inside her adopted country even though she is the most cited brazilian scientist in the world. But in spite of this lack of recognition, her work is continuously giving fruits. We are using Azospirillum brasiliense as co-inoculant for Bradyrhizobium since last year with positive results and have this year tried the second co inoculation with Bacillus subtilis and the results were even better. Soybean plants acquired nodulation on V1 stage when all the agronomy text books states that this is only possible in V3 and V4 stages. So, we are learning that in Biological Agriculture 1 + 1 + 1 equal much more than 3.
Dr Johanna Döbereiner have lived a humble life and has left a fine example on how to make this planet a better place to live. Maybe her research work could have laid down the basis, along with several other pioners, for a new Agronomy or a BioAgronomy.
She have asked the right questions. She wanted to know why all those grasses found in Brazil were always growing so well and stayed so green without any sort of chemical fertilizers. She wanted to know why all that Sugar Cane plants could be growing for centuries without any addition of chemical nitrogen. She hypothesized that some sort of non simbiotic nitrogen fixation should be taking place inside those plants for being so healthy and green.
Asking the right questions is a good way of solving old problems. So is having an open mind.
Surprisingly, at the Acres USA Conference 2016 when talking to some exhibitors at the trade show regarding the usage of some brazilian nitrogen fixing organisms such as Azospirillum brasiliense I noticed that there is still a great deal of what I have named ‘Microbiological Xenophobia’. You can easily find in the Organic Movement still a great deal of ‘Naturalists’ or ‘Purists’ that are in favour of indigenous microorganisms and deplore foreign microorganisms forgetting the fact that not even themselves are, as per say, ‘indigenous’ to their own country. If you are not from an Indian ancestry you are not indigenous to the USA. Period.
When the ancestors of these same people that exhibits signs of Microbiological Xenophobia came to America they brought with them a unique intestinal microbiome which was typical of their native country. To be more precise, 9 trillions of organisms mainly anaerobic bacteria and archea comprising from 4,000 up to 18,000 species ( 8 ).
Most of the plants that are cultivated there, even Blue Grass, are not indigenous to America. But when it comes to microrganisms there are still plenty of xenophobia. Terms such as ‘a bug in a jug’ are frequently used to downgrade biological agents even though they were judiciously and scientifically selected among thousand of other organisms and are dully marketed in a concentration that is known, making them a predictable and usefull tool to be used in Biological Agriculture. These two parameters, proper identification/purity and right/high concentration are fundamental to assure their success as a tool in biological agriculture.
Funny enough this is the same people that put lots of wishful thinking in other tools such as Compost Tea in which you don’t even know the name much less the number (concentration) of organisms involved.
Compost Tea can be a good tool when properly made and I have been one of its strongest proponents specially in Brazil, but one have first to admit that there are no two Compost Teas alike in the whole world. The quality of an Aerated Compost Tea (ACT) can vary anywhere from a small number to excellent depending on the quality of the compost used, as Dr Elaine Ingham pointed out many times ( 11 ).
Biased reactions apart, we are learning more and more that Soil Microbiology commands the underground show. Recalcitrant glicoproteins such as Glomalin, are being continuously formed by Mycorrhyzal fungi from the genus ‘Glomus’ improving water retention and Carbon fixation in the soil. This class of symbiotic fungi cannot live without active living roots of a plant. This proves the importance of maintaining the ground always covered and to have a greater diversity of plants when using cover crops to allow a better and greater formation of Glomalin and Humus in those soils, as Soil Microbiologist Dr Christine Jones has pointed out many times ( 10 ).
By amplifying rhyzosphere up to 100%, Mycorrhizal symbiotic fungi improves plant nutrition a great deal and is a must if one wants to have crops with increased nutritional density as well as resistant to insects and diseases.
Other participants of soil microbiome are also actively engaged in creating Humus which is the substance that eventually will save the planet Hearth from extintion.
Humus is the best tool to manage soil water as every 1% increase in soil organic matter, in the form of Humus, allows the soil to retain 170.000 liters ( 45,000 gallons) of water. IMHO this is the best and cheap way to retain water in the environment as opposed to building expensive water reservoirs ( 1 ).
Humus sponsors the improvement of soil structure through soil aggregates formation, which allows a better water retention and accumulation .
On the other hand, water reservoirs can only supply you with water. Besides water retention, humus has also the capacity to retain (actually chelate) most soil minerals increasing soil fertility. Several studies have demonstrated that food grown in humus rich soil have a higher nutrient density.
Another aspect of Humus increasing soil mineral retention has to do with the decrease of leaching of Nitrogen and Phosphorus to rivers and oceans and thereby reducing this type of pollution. Nitrogen pollution is considered to be even worse for the environment than the contribution of CO2 for the greenhouse effect.
However, the analogy of Humus I like best is the one coined by Hugh Lovel, an old timer Biodinamic agricultor and consultant living in Australia. He says that Humus is created, as we know by the whole array of Soil Food Web components, in the same fashion that bees makes honey, i.e. to be used in times of scarcity of food being minerals or water ( 5 ). I like this analogy very much. Soils without Humus are more prone to suffer from droughts and will rely heavily on irrigation water.
Those same organisms are the ones that transform oxidized minerals in reduced forms that can be utilized by the plants ( 6 ). There is always a microorganism behind every mineral in the soil, meaning that each microbe is involved in this conversion from oxydized into reduced form of every mineral.
What we observe in the soil is a miracle happening in every nano second. These are the kind of miracles that together and eventually will save the planet Earth as mentioned by Ohlsen ( 7 ).
However, it is sad to realize that the majority of the people today still live totally dissociated from the source of their food, as in the case of the environmental activists. The etimology of the word HUMUS meaning from the ground, from the hearth and from the soil is the same one of the word HUMAN that means from the Earth and for the Earth. It is also the same root of the word HUMBLE and HUMILITY as it comes from Humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as humble, but also as “grounded”, or “from the earth”, since it derives in turns from humus (earth) according to Wikipedia.
I can see clearly a total lack of humility among the majority of agricultural scientists that are constantly engaged in subjugating Nature to fit their own and greedy interests .
Maybe it is time for us all to be humble, more human, grounded and finally start worrying about what is underneath our feet. In this moment we will start giving the real value to Humus because it is this very complex structure that creates healthy soil, that will grow healthy plants and will raise healthy animals that ultimately will create healthy people.
Jose Luiz M Garcia Instituto de Agricultura Biológica São Paulo – S.P. – BRAZIL
1. Sait, Graeme. (2015) Humus – The Essential Ingredient. TED x Noosa. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Q1VnwcpW7E
2. Wolve, David D. (2001) Tales from the Underground – A Natural History of Subterranean Life, Perseus Publishing, 221 pgs.
3. Brunetti, Jerry.(2014) The Farm as Ecosystem, Tapping Nature’s Reservoir – Biology, Geology, Diversity, Acres USA, 335 pgs.
4. Andersen, Arden B. (1989). The Anatomy of Life & Energy in Agriculture, Acres USA, Kansas City, Missouri, 115 pgs.
5. Lovel, Hugh.(2014) Quantum Agriculture, Quantum Agriculture Publishers, Georgia, USA, 216 pgs.
6. Datnoff, L.E.; W.E. Elmer & Don M. Huber ( 2016) Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease, APS Press, St Paul, Minnesota, USA, 278 pgs.
7. Ohlsen, Kristin ( 2014). The Soil will Save Us, How Scientists, Farmers, And Foddies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, Rodale, 242 pgs.
8. Collen, Alanna ( 2015) 10% Human, How Your Body’s Microbes Hold The Key to Health and Happines, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 325 pgs.
9. Döbereiner, Johanna. A Pesquisa que Revolucionou a Agricultura, Scientific American Brasil, http://www2.uol.com.br/sciam/reportagens/a_pesquisa_que_revolucionou_a_agricultura.html
10. Jones, Christine. The Amazing Carbon. http://www.amazingcarbon.com
11. Ingham, Elaine. Soil Food Web. http://www.soilfoodweb.com