Inside The High-Tech World Of Microbes For Crops

Published online: Jun 28, 2019 News Jennifer Kite-Powell
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Source: Forbes

Pivot Bio is a data-driven company using technology  - genome sequencing - to produce a biological microbial product for farmers to grow corn.

Karsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot Bio, says farmers have had few fertilizer options and have turned to chemical fertilizers to give their corn crops the nutrition they need to provide an abundant harvest.

"While chemical fertilizers have been around for 100 years and are [..] responsible for about half of the world’s food supply, they have an environmental downside," said Temme. "Farmers know that maybe half of the chemical fertilizer they apply is actually used by the crop. Chemical fertilizers are volatile – they don’t stay put. They will either decompose and volatilize into the air emitting harmful nitrous oxide, a GHG 300 times more potent thanCO2."

Temme says that chemical fertilizers also leach or runoff through the soil and end up into waterways. "When chemical fertilizers end up in the water, they become nitrates, which significantly contribute to the 500 dead zones around the world, the largest is in the Gulf of Mexico. Dead zones are waters so low in oxygen that nothing can live," added Temme.

In February 2019, Pivot Bio issued a report citing that its nitrogen-producing microbe for corn had better ROI and superior harvesting superior yields. The data was based on research trials from 11,000 farms across multiple states in 2018. The farms were identified by a third party, IN10T that worked with the growers to gather harvest performance data from each of the farms.

Temme says that even in challenging soil types, their nitrogen-producing microbes had a close to a 17 bushel per acre average advantage against comparable fields using only chemical nitrogen fertilizer.

But to create microbes that increase corn crop yields, the company had to examine hundreds of soil samples they dug up from fields around the US.

"We were looking to single out microbes that had a mutualistic relationship with corn out of the billions that live in the soil. We call it 'shovelomics' because it starts and ends with the soil beneath our feet," added Temme.

Temme says it is essential to understand that certain microbes can produce nitrogen, but that its ability to produce nitrogen has been suppressed over time.

"When extra nitrogen is in the soil from years of applied chemical nitrogen is sensed by soil microbes, the microbes evolve and stop spending energy to produce nitrogen naturally.

Pivot Bio 're-awakens' the nitrogen-producing capabilities occurring naturally in soil microbes by using genomic sequencing to identify these crop-associated microbes with the natural ability to produce nitrogen.

"Pivot Bio builds on decades of research into the genes that produce the cellular machinery necessary to convert nitrogen in the air into nitrogen for plants. Our scientists fine-tune that molecular machine by editing the microbe’s genetic instructions to produce nitrogen daily, as the corn plant needs it," said Temme. "The microbes go through rigorous testing in the lab and greenhouse to ensure they can perform under modern agricultural field conditions and once we’ve identified the most robust microbes, we advance the best microbe candidates to the field."

Temme says that after the best microbe candidates are identified, the scientists move to real-life farming conditions and go out into the field again with a shovel to examine their microbes as they perform throughout the growing season - gathering data on colonization and activity.

Some of the traits they look for in a field-ready microbe is how well it produces nitrogen and how well it shares that nitrogen. In greenhouse testing (think of this as a beta trial) they learn about the way the plant and the microbe interact, examining the roots to ensure the microbe is the right partner for the corn plant and that it grows with the root system as the crop matures.

Temme adds that Pivot Bio’s microbes adhere to crop roots and feed nitrogen to the corn plant daily, no excess nitrogen is produced.

"Growers are confident the nitrogen they put down via Pivot Bio microbes stays with the corn plant, feeding it through the plant’s life cycle," said Temme.  "And, they stop wasting money on chemical nitrogen since they know that half of it never reaches the plant."

Pivot Bio has $86.7M in funding to date and plans to create microbial solutions for wheat and rice in the future. Pivot Bio's initial funding came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"Based on conservative calculations from the 2018 results of the trials on the 11,000 farms, the corn farmers using our biological microbial product over chemical fertilizers expands to just 35 percent of the U.S. corn market which is nearly 20,000 metric tons of nitrous oxide emissions could be reduced or prevented - and that is equivalent to taking nearly 1.5 million cars off the road," added Temme.

Temme adds that this could prevent up to 500,000 metric tons of nitrates leaching into waterways.