Exoskeletons of Insects, Crustaceans Create Eco-Friendly Biofertilizer

November 10, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Green sprouts in dirt
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Another stepping stone to a more sustainable world.

Traditional inorganic farming fertilizers are loaded with nitrogen, and many are derived from petroleum. Nitrogen fertilizers can pollute both water and the atmosphere, degrading soils and contributing to global warming. You might be surprised that a single 40-pound bag of inorganic fertilizer contains the equivalent of 2.5 gallons of gasoline, according to National Geographic — so it goes without saying that the environmental effects aren’t the best for the planet.

Researchers from the Centre for Plant Biotechnology and Genomics in Madrid have now developed a more natural solution to the problem, using the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans (crabs, lobster, and shrimp) to sustainably cultivate plants. The researchers collaborated with scientists from the University of Hamburg to develop a new technology to produce a biodegradable material made from the creatures’ exoskeletons.

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The key to their recipe is chitin (pronounced kite-en), the material that makes up an insect’s hard shell. Chitin is so durable because it is assembled from a complex network of sugar molecules that form a rigid structure. It also happens to be rich in nitrogen, one of the essential nutrients for plant grow. Armed with this knowledge, the researchers devised a method of extracting usable biocompounds from exoskeletons.

The good news for Earth is that this new compound is biodegradable, insoluble, and it doesn’t add any pollution to the environment. Plus, it can be used in lower amounts than other fertilizer components since it doesn’t evaporate or leach through the soil. The good news for us is that the compound is harmless to human health. It doesn’t hurt that it’s 10 percent cheaper than other organic fertilizers either — an additional advantage for future use.

Interestingly, the new compound has the ability to restore the soil’s biodiversity after suffering from overharvesting. The material has already been tested out, and it proved to stimulate the growth of a variety of plant species, both forestry and herbaceous.

Sustainable biofertilizer may not be something that keeps you up at night, but anything that helps to create a more sustainable planet is critical in a world that’s being faced with the trials of climate change in the here and now. In virtually any industry, if advancements are made that provide lower cost and more sustainable alternatives to the existing norm, it’s reason to get excited. Sustainability is the new black.

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