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This story was originally published by WIRED and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

If crops could feel envy, it’d be for legumes. Bean plants have a superpower. Or more accurately, they share one. They’ve developed symbiotic relationships with bacteria that process atmospheric nitrogen into a form that’s usable for those plants — an essential element for building their tissues, photosynthesizing, and generally staying healthy. This is known as nitrogen fixation. If you look at a legume’s roots, you’ll see nodules that provide these nitrogen-fixing microbes with a home and food. 

Other crops — cereals like wheat, rice, and corn — don’t have such a deep symbiotic relationship, so farmers have to use large amounts of fertilizer to get the plants the nitrogen they need. This is very expensive. And fertilizer production is not great for the environment. It’s not easy to turn atmospheric nitrogen into a form of nitrogen that plants can absorb on their own. 

“It takes a lot of energy and really high pressures and high temperatures,” says University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign plant biol... Read more

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