Dilek Dogutan earns award to reinvent Harvard's landscape

July 22, 2019
Dilek Dogutan, discussing the energy-saving practices she employs in the Nocera Lab

Dogutan plans to green campus landscape practices in collaboration with the Office for Sustainability and Facilities, Maintenance and Operations


Every year, the Harvard University President's Administrative Innovation Fund invites staff members to submit proposals for innovative solutions to improve University practices.

This year, Nocera Lab member Dilek Dogutan, Quentin Gilly from the Office for Sustainability, and Paul Smith, the Manager of Facilities, Maintenance and Operations, submitted a proposal to change the way Harvard manages campus green spaces. 

Many common fertilizers contain nitrogen and phosphorus. Since plants usually cannot absorb all the chemical nutrients, landscape runoff carries the leftovers down to the Charles River and Boston Harbor. 

And, though the chemicals support plant life, they can be toxic to marine life. Left unchecked, accumulations in rivers and oceans can encourage algae growth, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can have severe impacts on human health, aquatic ecosystems, and the economy. Tourists tend to avoid green, scummy, pungent tides.

But, a biofriendly, sustainable fertilizer invented in 2018 in the Nocera Lab, could prevent chemical runoff. Their bioengineered bacteria, X. autotrophicus, delivers nutrients to plants at the rate at which they can absorb them. That means the soil no longer contains excess nutients for rain to sweep off to the Charles River.

X. autotrophicus has another ecofriendly trick: The bacteria absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. "The Nocera Lab research results show that using the new biofertilizer methods across the U.S., we could remove 933 million tons of CO per year by sequestering the carbon in the soil," the team's proposal said.

According to the EPA, levels of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities, are increasing in the atmosphere. To combat the growing crisis, the Office for Sustainability tracks and reports Univeristy-wide emission levels of all greenhouse gases. And, in 2008, Harvard set a short-term goal of reducing emissions 30% by 2016. They came close, achieving a 24% reduction, despite adding three million square feet of space to the campus during this time.

Over the next year, Dogutan, the team's program manager, will test the new biofertilizer on pilot landscapes across the Cambridge campus, grow radishes, tomatoes, spinach, and other food crops for campus communities, and collect metrics to assess the effect on runoff and carbon dioxide levels.

Dogutan said, "As a team we are truly honored and are grateful for this wonderful opportunity and can’t wait to start working on our project."