Every year, a “dead zone” the size of Massachusetts sprawls across the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River, which travels through the nation’s farm belt, sweeps excess fertilizer and dumps the chemicals into the Gulf, where they feed rampant algae, deplete oxygen, and kill marine life.
Across the U.S., smaller versions of similar dead zones infect lakes, ponds, and rivers. In years with higher rainfall — like 2018 — Massachusetts’ Charles River collects enough pollutants from surrounding city streets, parking lots, and landscaped campuses to cause the water quality to drop. Unchecked algae growth, often the result of excess fertilizer, can damage marine, human, and even pet health: This year, several dogs died after swimming in water choked with toxic blue-green algae.
Now, Harvard scientists are teaming up with sustainability officers and landscaping experts to test a new fertilizer that won’t wash into water supplies. Using the Cambridge campus as a living laboratory, the team, which includes Dilek Dogutan, Quentin Gilly, and Paul Smith, plans to pilot the sustainable biofertilizer on Harvard’s grounds, starting this winter. Developed in the lab of Daniel Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy, the living biofertilizer, which operates with just sunlight, air, and water, remains with the plants, produces bigger and healthier specimens, and is carbon-negative, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering the dangerous greenhouse gas in the soil.
The pioneering effort began last spring, when Dogutan, a principal research scientist in the Nocera group, got an email from the President’s Administrative Innovation Fund (PAIF). In it she saw an opportunity to apply her lab’s research to the campus right outside her window. In previous experiments, the team had used the biofertilizer to grow radishes more than three times the size of controls grown without fertilizer. But the experiments took place in the stable conditions of a greenhouse.
“We wanted to take the research out of the controlled environment, to see the effect of soil acidity, air, temperature, humidity, everything,” Dogutan said. To do that, she needed help. Through PAIF, she formed a collaborative team with Gilly, the manager of laboratory sustainability and energy of the FAS Green Program in Harvard’s Office for Sustainability, and Smith, the associate manager of landscape services.