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Retrospect

Change in production

Some fifty years ago Johanna Döbereiner Began her biology search into nitrogen fixation

A young Czech researcher, twenty-seven years of age, landed in Rio de Janeiro in 1951 and a little more than ten years later was already one of the main people responsible for an appreciable change in the manner of production of some Brazilian agricultural crops. A recent graduate in agronomy from the University of Munich, Germany, Johanna Döbereiner (1924-2000) was hired by the National Service for Agronomy Research, of the Ministry of Agriculture in the town of Seropédica (RJ), and began work on microbiology of the soil supervised by Alvaro Barcelos Fagundes, at that time the director of the unit.

Starting in 1953, the researcher turned her attention to the area of biology known as nitrogen fixation (BNF). Johanna’s starting point was her observations concerning bahia grass, which grows everywhere and remains green and flourishing without nitrogenous fertilizer. During 1958 to 1959, she published, along with some colleagues a survey on nitrogen fixation in sugarcane in the Brazilian Biology Magazine.

When she exposed her data on the occurrence of these microorganisms in sugarcane, there was some suspicion from the majority of fellow researchers. “Nobody took me seriously because there was nothing existed on the literature on the description of the association of these bacteria with higher plants”, Johanna said during an interview with the researcher Carlos Chagas Filho (1910-2000), published in the book Cientistas do Brasil – Depoimentos (Scientists of Brazil – Statements) (Commemorative Edition of the Fifty Years of the SBPC).

In 1963 she was asked to participate in the recently founded National Soya Bean Commission. Right away, she got herself involved in a row: the tendency was to use nitrogenous fertilizers of very high cost. Johanna insisted that Brazil must wager on the use of bacteria nitrogen fixers and won the discussion. The result is known: from 1964, the Brazilian program for soya improvement was completely based on the process of BNF and the country turned itself into the second largest world producer of this grain – the annual economy using nitrogen fixing fertilizers reaches more than US$ 1.5 billion.

Johanna always worked with The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa Agrobiology with its headquarters in the town of Seropédica) and afterwards with the Rural Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Her studies gained her international recognition – she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1997 – and even influenced the main lines of research about this theme in Brazil and abroad.

For example, in May specialists from seven institutions in Rio announced the conclusion of the sequencing of Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, one of the bacterium responsible for nitrogen fixing in the sugarcane. With the information obtained, the researchers will attempt to improve the metabolic performance of the bacterium in order to widen its capability in nitrogen fixation.

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