16-Year-Old Irish Girls Win Google Science Fair With Agricultural Breakthrough

Every year, Google sponsors a global science fair in the hopes of finding young scientist with innovative ideas that could change the world.

This year’s winners are no exception.  Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow (all 16) took the top prize with their project “Combating the Global Food Crisis”.

The trio figured out a way to cut seed germination time in half, while also producing crop yields nearly 75% greater than normal.

So how’d they do it?

The girls working on their project

The trio working on their project

For starters, all three girls are fans on gardening. Back in 2011, the girls learned about the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, and started trying to think of ways that they could help.

One day, Émer noticed some strange-looking nodules growing on the roots of the pea plants in her garden, and decided to bring one of the plants to class to ask the teacher what the growths were.

Peas, like many other plants, maintain a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing diazatrophic rhizobia bacteria found in the soil.

The bacteria (which attach themselves to plant roots) remove nitrogen from the air and “fixes” it, transforming it into a form of nitrogen that is usable by the plant. This added nitrogen acts as a natural fertilizer.

The nitrogen cycle

The nitrogen cycle

The only problem: these nitrogen-fixing bacteria are found almost exclusively on leguminous plants (plants from the pea family). So the girls decided to see what would happen if they introduced these nitrogen-fixing bacteria to non-leguminous crops like oats and barley.

The results were astounding: in a test of 10,000 seeds, the girls found that the crops germinated twice as fast and produced a dry-mass crop yield that was 74% greater than normal.

The girls included the following statement in their submission:

“These results have significant potential for increasing yields of food crops and reducing losses due to adverse weather conditions. They also offer opportunities for reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture by reducing fertilizer usage. As demand for cereals increases with population growth, this discovery could act as a partial solution to the impending food poverty crisis. There is potential for future work in this area and we plan to investigate the biochemical mechanism involved and carry out more extensive field trials.”

The three girls pose with other science fair winners (LEGO made the trophies)

The three girls pose with other science fair winners (LEGO made the trophies)

For winning the grand prize, each of the three girls will get a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands (courtesy of National Geographic), a $50,000 scholarship from Google, a personalized prize from LEGO’s education unit, and the opportunity to participate in astronaut training at the Virgin Galactic Spaceport, located in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin in New Mexico.

Read the original story from Inhabitat here.

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