Advertisement

With Designer Bacteria, Crops Could One Day Fertilize Themselves

With Designer Bacteria, Crops Could One Day Fertilize Themselves
From Wired - September 13, 2017

For the last 100 years, ever since German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch figured out how to pluck fertilizer out of thin air with brute-force chemistry, farmers have relied on an imperfect product to make their plants grow: fertilizer. Production of the stuff burns through 3 percent of the worlds natural gas annually, releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere, and runs off into rivers and streams and aquifers. Relying on fossil fuels to grow food was never exactly sustainable. But as the world thinks about what it will take to feed 9 billion people in a rapidly changing climate, its become unconscionable.

One solution would be for everyone to start eating a lot more legumes.

Peanuts, peas, and many types of beans are climate-friendly because they basically make their own fertilizer. They play host to a special class of microbes called nitrogen fixers that invade the root hairs of their host plants, forming knobby nodes and converting free nitrogen in the soil to ammonia. That's the stuff plants need to make food for themselves via photosynthesis. Most of the worlds biggest food cropscorn, wheat, ricearent so hospitable to nitrogen-fixers. Which is why they require so much artificial fertilizer to grow.

Or, you could engineer a host of microbes that have all the nitrogen-fixing power of the peanuts follicular friends, but with the ability to colonize the roots of any plant. Then you could paint that bacteria onto shelf-stable seeds and ship them anywhere in the world. Thats what a new startup, boasting the largest seed investment of any ag tech company so far this year, plans to do. On Thursday, German biochem giant Bayer announced it was joining forces with Gingko Bioworks, a Boston-based synthetic biology shop, to create a new venture to wean the world off fertilizers.

We fundamentally know that microbes will provide benefits to plants that chemicals cannot, says Mike Miille, head of Bayer Crop Science, who will also be the new companys interim CEO. But these nitrogen-fixing microbes have been limited in what they can do by which plants' evolution has pushed them toward. Were trying to change that.

The company (which is so far unnamed) will operate jointly out of Ginkgos soon-to-be-completed automated DNA foundry and Bayer Crop Sciences R&D center in West Sacramento. Bayers science team has already started screening its microbial library for candidate critters to ship to Boston. With hundreds of thousands of bacteria to sift through, they hope to pull together a diverse set of nitrogen-fixers for scientists at Ginkgo to begin sequencing as early as next month.

Advertisement

Continue reading at Wired »