SDSU tapped to lead NSF-backed, $7 million project!

Posted on: July 3, 2024   |   Categories: Announcements, News & Updates
Sd Ag


South Dakota State University has been tapped by the National Science Foundation to lead a statewide project that will build research capacity focused on biological nitrogen fixation and its applications in sustainable agriculture and industry.

The four-year, $7 million project will establish the “BioNitrogen Economy Research Center” (BNERC) and will see SDSU work in collaboration with Oglala Lakota College, South Dakota Mines, the University of South Dakota and Houdek, a Brookings-based fermentation technology company. Ruanbao Zhou, professor in SDSU’s Department of Biology and Microbiology and the Agricultural Experiment Station, will serve as the project’s lead investigator and the director of BNERC. 

Ruanbao Zhou Photo
Ruanbao Zhou

“I am deeply honored to lead this transformative project, which not only harnesses cutting-edge science and technology but also cherishes and integrates the traditional knowledge of Native communities,” Zhou said. “This project stands as a testament to the incredible power of resilience, collaboration and the unwavering support of a united community. Despite significant challenges, our collective efforts have brought us this moment of opportunity.” 

Biological nitrogen fixation is a process in which dinitrogen gas (N2) found in the atmosphere is converted into a useable compound, like ammonia. While this process is “energetically expensive,” “biochemically challenging,” and carried out by specific species of bacteria, it plays a vital role in promoting plant growth in soils that suffer from nitrogen deficiency.

“Excited to see the support from NSF and looking forward to the transformative outcomes this interdisciplinary team led by Dr. Zhou,” said Sen Subramanian, associate dean for research for SDSU’s College of Natural Sciences. “We expect our continued team building efforts to drive the formation of research centers that grow science while benefitting society.”

Researchers believe biological nitrogen fixation, a process fully realized in 1901 by Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck, may provide a pathway to a more sustainable, environmentally friendly form of nitrogen production and plant growth.

“We are excited to host NSF’s BioNitrogen Economy Research Center at SDSU,” said Daniel Scholl, SDSU’s vice president for research and economic development. “South Dakota’s economy will benefit from this research and the technology expected to spin off of it. Dr. Zhou and his team’s vision and research will have an impact for years to come.”

Currently, nitrogen is derived primarily from fossil fuels but is a critical element to plant growth and subsequently agriculture production. While nitrogen is an incredibly abundant element, plants can only utilize nitrogen through the addition of ammonia or nitrate fertilizer.

“The BNERC team represents the pinnacle of interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration by harnessing the expertise of teams with unique and complementary interests to address pressing and fundamental challenges to our local and global communities,” said Jeremy Chambers, head of SDSU’s Department of Biology and Microbiology. “I am very proud of their efforts, and I cannot wait for the amazing contributions this research will have on environmental, agricultural and human health.”

This project will help in alleviating environmental issues of nitrogen pollution in agriculture-dominate states, like South Dakota, and provide alternatives for the commercial production of nitrogen- and carbon-rich biological products, including fertilizers, nutritional proteins and bioplastics. It will also lean heavily on the knowledge and resources of Native communities about agricultural and medicinal Indigenous plants.

“We are pleased to receive this grant, which will empower OLC students to conduct essential research on nitrogen fixation in the prairie ecosystem, focusing on culturally significant indigenous plants and fostering a strong STEM identity within our communities,” said Dawn Frank, president of Oglala Lakota College. “We are particularly proud of our MST department and Nick Klein for taking on this pivotal leadership role.”

“Incorporating AI and machine learning into our investigation of nitrogen-fixing bacteria will enable us to explore intricate biological mechanisms with unparalleled accuracy,” said Etienne Gnimpieba Zohim, research assistant professor of bioinformatics from USD’s biomedical engineering program and a co-investigator on the project. “This strategy will facilitate the development of sustainable solutions for agriculture, pharmaceuticals and chemicals industries.”

The researchers will seek to develop personnel, technologies and infrastructure for a bio-nitrogen economy by using solar-powered cyanobacteria — a form of bacteria that can obtain energy via oxygenic photosynthesis.

“The unique properties of thermophilic cyanobacteria, which thrive in the extreme conditions of Yellowstone’s hot springs, open new doors for biotechnological applications. Our research at BNERC is not just about understanding these remarkable organisms, but also about harnessing their capabilities to develop sustainable solutions for industrial bioprocessing,” said Rajesh Sani, a professor in the Karen M. Swindler Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and in the Department of Chemistry, Biology and Health Sciences at South Dakota Mines.

There are four specific areas of research to be conducted in the project. First, the research team will study nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria in natural ecosystems. Second, researchers will utilize machine learning-driven multi-omics approaches to explore the mechanisms of solar-powered, oxic nitrogen-fixation. After the underlying processes are studied and understood, they will begin developing biofuels and value-added products using nitrogen. Finally, they will genetically engineer nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria as a step toward developing nitrogen-fixing crops.

“Having worked closely with SDSU for nearly 15 years on the scale-up of cutting-edge fermentation technologies, Houdek is particularly excited about Dr. Zhou’s work on solar-powered nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria and the near-term impact they can have on our rural farm communities,” said Mark Luecke, CEO of Houdek and South Dakota Innovation Partners.

A component of the project will also be the promotion of workforce development in the state by integrating K-12 outreach, undergraduate and graduate research programs while partnering with tribal communities.

“Let this be a reminder of the profound impact we can have when we lift each other up, foster an environment of kindness and support, and work together toward a brighter, solar-powered bio-nitrogen economy era and a more sustainable future for all,” Zhou added.

The project is funded through a $35 million federal government investment via NSF’s EPSCoR Research Incubators for STEM Excellence Research Infrastructure Improvement Program.