It may not be that much larger than an insect, but the fern species called Azolla filiculoides could be a tiny plant serving a bigger purpose — in this case, minimizing the harmful effect global warming has on our planet.
In a study published last week in the journal Nature Plants, a multinational team of about 40 scientists discussed how they achieved a first by sequencing Azolla's genome for the first time, and also sequenced a second fern species called Salvinia cucullata. As detailed by Quartz, the researchers had some interesting takeaways in the study, including the discovery that Azolla has a "fern-specific" protein that could naturally drive insects away.
Cornell University plant evolutionary biologist and study co-author Fay-Wei Li explained that this could be the reason why insects, by nature, do not like ferns, but added that his team's findings could have a more important implication in the field of agriculture, as a pesticide based on fern protein could be a "massive breakthrough" in a market where many of today's pesticides are supposedly laced with agents that could be harmful to both humans and animals, or harmful to our environment.
According to Quartz, Azolla could play an even more important role in the environment, as its physical features include indents that could hold cyanobacteria. This is a blue-green form of algae that lives within the fern's leaves and works as a "nitrogen fixer," or an agent that helps convert atmospheric nitrogen into a fertilizer.
"With this first genomic data from ferns, science can gain vital intelligence for understanding plant genes. We can now research its properties as a sustainable fertilizer and perhaps gather carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," said Li.Chinese and Vietnamese farmers have long been aware of Azolla and its status as the so-called "green manure," as they have been using the fern to fertilize since the 11th century or so. However, the species has been around for much longer than that, as the researchers noted that there was a significant "Azolla bloom" that took place in the Arctic about 50 million years ago, one that had helped significantly reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and kept temperatures down, according to a separate report from Inverse.
"[Azolla] sequestered so much carbon that it switched the globe out of 'hothouse' conditions into the relatively cooler conditions that we experience now," said study co-author Carl Rothfels, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California-Berkeley.
In all, the researchers believe that Azolla has the potential to keep thriving in unusual situations, and therefore the potential to shield humanity from the worst effects of climate change, much as it did millions of years ago.