Becker Underwood granted patent for nitrogen-fixing technology

McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, and Becker Underwood, Ames, Iowa, have signed a commercial licensing agreement granting Becker Underwood exclusive rights to patented nitrogen-fixing technology developed by a team of McGill researchers.

Becker Underwood is a developer, marketer and producer of bio-agronomic products for agriculture.

“We’re extremely pleased that McGill University selected Becker Underwood as the company to lead the development and commercialization of this exciting new technology,” said Eda Reinot, head of research and development for Becker Underwood. “We believe this technology will be an important tool in our efforts to develop and introduce new and modern inoculant products that deliver a greater return to the producers who use them.”

Legumes such as soybeans, peanuts, peas, lentils and alfalfa form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing rhizobia bacteria. This relationship begins with the plant naturally secreting certain compounds called flavonoids (plant metabolites). When these flavonoids are sensed by the rhizobia, Reinot explained, they begin to produce and excrete the compounds needed to stimulate formation of nodules on the roots of the plant. The bacteria populate the nodule as it is forming.

Inside the nodule, the bacteria are protected from environmental threats and receive nutrients that they need for survival from the plant. In return, the rhizobia bacteria capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into a nitrogen form that the plant can use for growth and crop production.

The technology licensed to Becker Underwood involves a fatty acid compound shown to be highly effective in stimulating rhizobia to produce the substances needed for increased nodule formation and greater nitrogen fixation. With this technology incorporated into the company’s high-performing rhizobial inoculant products, producers of soybean, peanut, pea, lentil and alfalfa crops are expected to realize improved crop yields.

The McGill University team which developed the patent-protected technology was led by Donald L. Smith, chair of the Plant Science Department and a James McGill professor. Smith was joined by Fazli Mabood of McGill University and Hao Zhang, now a research scientist at ImmunoScience, Inc., Pleasanton, Calif.

Other details of the agreement were not disclosed.

“At a time when fossil fuel costs are likely to require the development of less energy-dependent inputs, it is key to be looking for bio-inputs to take the place of chemical ones,” said Smith. “The green tissues of plants are the place where almost all energy enters the biosphere. As a result, a plant growing in the field is not a singular and sterile entity; it is a community.

“Many of the associated micro-organisms have evolved over very long periods to live in association with plants,” he continued. “In some cases, this has led to associations that, through various mechanisms, improve the ability of plants to grow. There is still much to be drawn from these relationships; and through its relationship with McGill University, Becker-Underwood is positioning itself to bring these benefits to those producing food for all of us.”

“We are excited by the opportunity to bring this new technology to the marketplace and wish to extend a special thanks to Cherif Aidara, officer at McGill’s Office of the Vice-Principal of Research and International Relations, for his invaluable assistance in the successful execution of this technology transfer agreement,” Reinot concluded.

Becker Underwood anticipates commercial availability of its first products incorporating this patented new technology for the 2010 spring planting season. Additional new products utilizing the technology are expected in 2011 and beyond.

To learn more about its products, visit the company’s Web site at