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University of Wisconsin–Madison

An integrated approach towards planetary health: The nitrogen fix

Health of humans and planet Earth are tightly intertwined. We need to create scientific approaches towards establishing “Planetary Health” that ensures the sustainability of natural systems.

This transformative research initiative will uncover billions-of-years’ worth of Earth-life co-evolution to discover new possibilities for stabilizing critical facets of Wisconsin’s ecological and agroeconomic systems. The research will focus on an essential element for life, nitrogen (N), and seek direct guidance from the history of the planet.

Though it is all around us in the air we breathe, atmospheric nitrogen is inaccessible to humans; life depends on a single enzyme, nitrogenase, to ‘fix’ nitrogen into a biologically usable form. Nitrogenase is so vital that half of agricultural production relies upon it, while the rest requires environmentally and economically costly industrial fertilizers.

The researchers will use artificial intelligence and experimental tools to access the ancient diversity of nitrogenase proteins to unlock their bioengineering potential. This team builds on the historical strength of UW–Madison on N fixation research and provides a unique fusion of paleobiology, computational biology, synthetic biology, and agronomy to execute these aims.

This project is a first attempt to mine an untapped source of biologically inspired alternatives to industrial N-fixation from ancient Earth.


Betül Kaçar, assistant professor of bacteriology


Jean-Michel Ané, professor of bacteriology

Brian Pfleger, professor of chemical and biological engineering