Green algae boost wheat yields, say scientists

Gorn 19 is produced from the green algae Spirogyra Copyright: PROYECTO AGUA** /** WATER PROJECT

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[CAIRO] A substance derived from green algae has boosted wheat productivity by a quarter, according to Egyptian scientists.

‘Gorn 19′ was invented by an Egyptian agricultural engineer who claimed local farmers’ wheat output soared when they used it. Now, university scientists say that the substance — produced from the green algae Spirogyra — increased the productivity of the crop by 25 per cent compared with normal fertiliser.

The results of their research, which have not been published in a journal, were presented at an exhibition of Egypt’s 20 best inventions since its patent office was established in 1951. Investors were encouraged to attend the event, held at the Egyptian National Research Centre last month (10–17 October).

Ali Ashour, who discovered the potential of the substance, derived it from Spirogyra growing in a lake close to Al Isma’iliyah governorate and acquired a patent in 2004. Ashour is an agricultural engineer in the Agriculture Ministry’s seeds production administration.

The faculty of agriculture at Ain Shams University, Egypt, carried out a study of Gorn 19 on five acres of wheat for the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology.

In a paper submitted to the academy, the scientists say they found an acre of wheat produced using normal fertiliser yields 18 ardebs — a unit of volume for agricultural crops used in many Middle Eastern countries, where one ardeb is standardised in Egypt to equal 198 litres — but when fertilised with the algal substance it produced 22.5 ardebs.

"It is a very effective compound," said Ahmed Belal, supervisor of the study and a professor at the university. He believes that it is the high level of minerals and certain acids in the algae that helps the plants absorb minerals from the soil more easily and supports the plant’s production of amino acids.

The compound also strengthens plant tissue, and helps it bear higher temperature and soil saltiness, he said.

Ashour said that the study was an "academic assurance" to his discovery.

Local farmer Hamdey Qenawy said: "This fertiliser is amazing — it increased my land productivity from 20 to 25 ardebs per acre and cost me just [US$7] per acre". Qenawy said he has used Gorn 19 since 2005.

Fawzi Karajeh, regional coordinator at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas for the Nile Valley and Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Program, said: "Gorn 19 may have the ability to increase wheat productivity with such a percentage as it is made of algae that have the ability to absorb nitrogen, which is a useful element for plant nutrition, and make it available to the plant.

"It is also a popular food item for microbes in the soil — its reaction with them leads to the release of elements useful for plant growth."

But he said that the economic feasibility of using Gorn 19 would need to be investigated, as would its long-term effects on the soil.  

Three consecutive years of testing are needed to check that it does not consume all the soil nutrients in the first year, leaving crops impoverished after that.