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Harnessing the Power of Ag Microbials

September 25, 2018
Editor’s Note: As part of BIO’s 25th Anniversary celebration we will be spotlighting biotechnology innovations that have made a major impact over the past 25 years. This “Innovation Series” will publish on the 25th of every month throughout 2018. In the ninth installment we spotlight food and agriculture biotechnology. 

So, you want to grow a vegetable. Let’s say you’re looking to grow a jalapeño pepper. You go to your local nursery, buy a young pepper plant, take it home and plant it in the ground or in a pot. Then, you water it, place it in the sun and nature pretty much takes care of the rest.

While you patiently wait and brainstorm recipes for your bountiful pepper harvest, billions of microbes just beneath the soil are working to help provide your plant the nutrients it needs to grow. In one spoonful of soil, there are billions of microbes - tiny organisms like bacteria and fungi - that naturally exist. What if there was a way to boost microbes and improve plants to benefit both humans and the environment?

That’s where “ag microbials” come in.

Through biotechnology innovation, products have been created that can be applied directly to a seed to enhance the natural microbes, improving outcomes for both nutrition and the environment.

Thanks to new understandings from gene sequencing, researchers can identify microbes with particular attributes, allowing farmers to control the microbes going into the soil.

Many of the attributes being explored benefit more than just the plant. Some microbials have the potential to suppress plants’ negative responses to drought, essentially tricking them into continuing to grow through dry conditions. In an increasingly warmer world, water conversation is a growing priority, and ag microbials such as these will allow farmers to use less water, thus benefiting the environment.

Recognizing the potential and beneficial impact of ag microbials, biotechnology companies are now investing in research and development of this innovative technology. For example, Pivot BIO in California is developing ag microbials to help reduce the nitrogen runoff that can pollute lakes, rivers and oceans. Plants need nitrogen to grow and thrive, but nitrogen from fertilizers can runoff into waterways, leading to “dead zones” - large areas in the water that do not have enough oxygen to support marine life.

Pivot’s microbials allow plants to absorb more nitrogen from the atmosphere. This allows farmers to apply less nitrogen-containing fertilizers and enhance the plant’s natural ability to convert nitrogen from the air to meet crops’ daily nitrogen needs.

Additionally, Monsanto (now a part of Bayer Crop Science) and Novozymes formed an alliance to develop microbial solutions to transform agriculture. The alliance is developing two microbial products: inoculants, which help plants with absorbing nutrients like nitrogen, and biocontrols, which help protect plants against pests and diseases. The latter will allow a plant to fight off pests and diseases on its own, reducing the need for pesticides and, again, reducing environmental impact.

Small companies like Ginkgo Bioworks are also looking to microbial science to help enhance agriculture. The startup is using biotechnology to engineer microbes to also reduce runoff from fertilizers into the environment. For this effort, Gingko Bioworks has formed a joint venture with Bayer to pair the company’s know-how with Ginkgo Bioworks’ manufacturing capabilities. In addition to producing ag microbials to fix nitrogen, the alliance looks to tackle soybean rust and citrus greening – a topic we covered previously here.

And while much of the conversation has focused on genetic engineering of plants to solve food and agriculture challenges like citrus greening, ag microbials hold tremendous promise as another solution.

By enhancing the microbes already at work beneath the soil, farmers can essentially optimize nature for greater benefits – benefits that transcend plant health, helping to also reduce environmental impact.

So next time you pick a pepper, remember most of the work came from the billions of microbes living just beneath the soil. Biotechnology allows us to harness the power of microbes to work to the advantage of plants, humans and the earth more than ever before.