The 13th European Nitrogen Fixation Conference (ENFC) was held at the Münchenbryggeriet in August 18-22. This is biennial congress focused on Biological N2 fixation (BNF), a microbially mediated process that reduces atmospheric di-nitrogen gas (N2; composes 70 % of our atmosphere) to a biologically available form (ammonia).  The first ENFC was held in Szeged, Hungary in 1994, and the congress location alternates from North to South, this year, Stockholm was selected for the event.  In total, 312 participated in the ENFC from 37 countries, the majority from outside of Sweden and Scandinavia, nearly 50 % of participation came from outside of the European Union.

Local organizers Pawlowski and Foster taking a break after the opening ceremony of this years ENFC held at the Münchenbryggeriet in Stockholm Sweden. Photo: Irina Demina.


The congress was organized by three of our DEEP faculty (Professor Katharina Pawlowski, Docent Ulla Rasmussen, & Docent Rachel A Foster) in collaboration with two faculty from Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics (Professor Stefan Nordlund and Dr Agenta Norén). Highlights from the conference included an EMBO sponsored lecture by Professor Ray Dixon from the John Innes Centre at Norwich, UK, on the potential of N2 fixation in agriculture. A plenary talk by Peter Ebanyat of Makerere University (Kampala, Uganda) summarized the benefits and use of BNF by smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa. This year, we added two new sessions to the classical topics of the ENFC: a Symposium of Aquatic N2 Fixation, organized by Foster, and one on BNF and Climate Change.  Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak with Foster and Pawlowski on the motivation and impact of this year’s ENFC.


Prof. Ray Dixon from the John Innes Center, UK, giving his EMBO lecture on the importance of N2 fixation in agriculture. Photo: Philip Ley, Msc Student, SU.

- My motivation to organize the Symposium of Aquatic N2 fixation came from my participation in two earlier ENFC congresses. I realized that there is this juxtaposition between the two fields separated by ecosystem. Those of us working in a nutrient desert (open ocean gyres) relying completely on BNF to support primary production, while those on land try to overcome and replace fertilizers with BNF in agriculture. Given that 70 % of this planet is covered by water, and most land practices end up in the sea, it is time these two research communities come together and start a dialogue. I saw the ENFC as a great bridge for the gap between aquatic and terrestrial BNF researchers, remarks Foster.

Local Organizer, Foster introducing the Symposium of Aquatic N2 Fixation at the opening ceremony of the ENFC. Photo: Philip Ley, Msc Student, SU.


Foster continues:

- Another interest is that there are many parallels in the research. For example, many of the participants of the ENFC are synthetic biologists who are developing gene cassettes based N2 fixing bacteria and attempting to insert these into land plants e.g. crops, and thereby replace the use of fertilizers. In the oceans, we have a more simplistic model between N2 fixing microbes and single celled algae, many of these form blooms, and are important natural fertilizers of the sea.  There are insights in the aquatic symbiosis that could be helpful in overcoming the technical and cellular challenges, e.g. where to put the gene cassette to overcome deactivation by oxygen evolution by the host plants, faced by the synthetic biologists.

Pawlowski adds:

- We hope to make it a tradition to include aquatic research.  We’ll see if the next organizing committee in Naples will pick up on the tradition for the next ENFC.

Pawlowski mentions:

- We also made a strong effort to give a lot of “early career  (EC) travel grants sponsored from 3 science societies (FEMS, ISME, and SPSS) for PhD students and up to five years - 30 persons were awarded this year. And we gave out 3 poster prizes sponsored by two scientific journals, Nitrogen Journal and Agronony Journal.” Foster adds, “Often at conferences there is a lot of focus on the most senior researchers, and we wanted to highlight the persons, the students and postdocs, who  are doing the work, so we made a streaming powerpoint of the EC recipients photo and his/her inspiring quote, which ran on screens throughout the conference.

Foot note: The first photo was taken by Irina Demina, that was the photograher at the event. Find her on linkedin here.