Skip to main content Skip to navigation

New scientific rebuttal aims to get field back on target

Posted by scott.weybright | February 12, 2021
When scientists make a breakthrough, it impacts their field for years. The next generation of students takes new research and builds on it, often making it a foundation of their careers.

Formal profile photo of John Peters in outdoor setting
John Peters

When new research findings involve methods for efficiently making fertilizer for agriculture, that can impact the entire world’s food supply and energy consumption.

When the data for those findings can’t be backed up or replicated, that’s a huge problem.

In a new Comment published today in the journal Science, WSU researcher John Peters and several colleagues challenge a previous article, published in Science last summer, about just such a data problem.

“The data simply doesn’t support what was published,” said Peters, Director of WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry. “I’ve never written anything like this before, and I don’t do it lightly. But this is too important and could throw the field off-course for years to come.”

Peters is a Fellow in both the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science

In the original paper, a research team said they captured a specific enzyme in a state where it’s possible to figure out how to make ammonium from nitrogen more efficiently.

“If the results of the paper were right, it would really push research in our field forward,” Peters said. “But if it’s not supported, which this isn’t, then that can have devastating effects. It was clear pretty quickly that the data didn’t back up this finding.”

Fertilizer production is a key to increasing crop yields, but consumes around 1% of global energy, Peters said. Making the process more efficient would have huge global impacts, both in food and greenhouse gas emissions.

“The whole world is looking for better ways to make fertilizer,” Peters said. “Understanding this reaction would help that. Once we get it right, that will have major impacts. It just hasn’t happened yet.”