Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Top Philippine university becomes steward of world's largest aquatic fern collection

Azolla, the unassuming tiny aquatic fern, has surprisingly several valuable uses.  (Photo by Niño Banayo, IRRI)

LOS BAÑOS, Philippines—The world's largest collection of aquatic fern (Azolla) from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is being transferred to the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). IRRI’s collection, which includes about seven species of Azolla from 50 countries in the world, will be under the stewardship of UPLB’s Crop Science Cluster of the College of Agriculture and Food Science, whose dean, Dr. Enrico Supangco, will be receiving the collection in a turnover rite on 8 March.

"Azolla is a largely untapped resource that needs to be further understood in both its simplicity and complexity, “ said IRRI agronomist Yoichiro Kato. “It is possibly one of nature's most ingenious inventions and curious gifts to humanity."

UPLB will share the Azolla collection with the Philippine Rice Research Institute and students, researchers, farmers, and other interested stakeholders, according to Niño Banayo, an IRRI agronomist, who co-managed IRRI's Azolla collection.  Some samples of the Azolla species from the collection were also sent to the Dr. Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Center (KBCC) in Taiwan, a Noah's ark of tropical plants.

IRRI started collecting Azolla in 1976 as part of studies on using and enhancing biological nitrogen fixation. The Azolla collection includes natural populations, hybrids, and mutants that cannot be recovered from nature. The aquatic legumes collection protects germplasm that grows in fragile wetland environments threatened by loss and genetic erosion.

Despite its small size, Azolla has a number of uses: biofertilizer, livestock feed, and source of renewable energy. Many species are also edible and are rich in protein and essential amino acids. In fact, some scientists investigated the potential of Azolla for space agriculture and as a super food crop for colonial habitation in Mars.

Dr. Supangco (seated) signs an agreement transferring stewardship of the world's largest aquatic fern collection from IRRI to UPLB. Also in photo: (from left)  Dr. Joe Hernandez, Dr. Pearl Sanchez, Prof. Teresita Borromeo, Dr. Edna Aguilar, Dr. Rex Demafelis from UPLB and Drs. Jacqueline Hughes, Yoichiro Kato, Crisanta  Bueno, Bruce Tolentino and Mr. Niño Banayo of IRRI.

Incredibly, Azolla is able to double its biomass every two or three days. It can also capture and fix nitrogen from the air, making it an ideal biological fertilizer for any other food crops like rice. Besides nitrogen, the plant is also very effective at capturing and fixing atmospheric carbon dioxide (C02), a known greenhouse gas.

This amazing ability is uniquely associated with an event believed to have happened some 49 million years ago that reversed Earth's warm climate into the present icehouse state it is in today. This same event in the past may well hold the key to reversing a reliably unpredictable climate by sequestering greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  

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