Sci­en­tists want to re­place pes­ti­cides with bac­te­ria

In hu­mans, a healthy mi­cro­biome is recog­nised crit­i­cal to health. The same is true of plant world

Financial Chronicle - - MISCELLANY - EL­IZ­A­BETH G DUNN

FRESH snow coats the side­walks out­side Indigo Ag Inc.’s Bos­ton of­fices, but in­side the tem­per­a­ture is cal­i­brated to mimic spring in the Mid­west. Hun­dreds of al­most iden­ti­cal soy seedlings sit be­neath high-in­ten­sity arc lamps, bask­ing in the ar­ti­fi­cially sunny 60F weather.

The plants aren’t des­tined to stay iden­ti­cal for long. “We haven’t im­posed the stress yet,” says Ge­of­frey von Maltzahn, the com­pany’s lanky 37-year-old co­founder. The MIT-trained mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist ges­tures to­ward pho­tos show­ing what hap­pens when you ap­ply Indigo’s sig­na­ture prod­uct — a coat­ing of care­fully cho­sen mi­crobes — to some seeds but not oth­ers be­fore plant­ing, then dial back the wa­ter sup­ply: One shows a tall, flour­ish­ing stalk; the other, what looks like a tan­gle of shriv­eled leaves.

In hu­mans, a healthy mi­cro­biome — the uni­verse of bac­te­ria, fungi, and viruses that lives in­side all of us — is in­creas­ingly recog­nised as crit­i­cal to over­all health. The same is true of the plant world, and Indigo is among the dozen or so agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy star­tups try­ing to take ad­van­tage of the grow­ing sci­en­tific con­sen­sus. Their work is en­abled by ad­vances in ma­chine learn­ing and a steep re­duc­tion in the cost of ge­netic se­quenc­ing, used by com­pa­nies to de­ter­mine which mi­crobes are present. Ap­proaches vary: AgBiome LLC, with fund­ing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion, is study­ing how mi­crobes can help con­trol sweet potato wee­vils in Africa, while Ginkgo Bioworks Inc an­nounced a $100 mil­lion joint ven­ture with Bayer AG to ex­plore how mi­crobes can en­cour­age plants to pro­duce their own ni­tro­gen.

Indigo is the best-funded of the bunch, hav­ing raised more than $400 mil­lion. To de­velop its mi­cro­bial cock­tails, Indigo agron­o­mists comb through nor­mal fields in dry con­di­tions to see which plants seem health­ier than av­er­age. They take sam­ples of the thriv­ing plants and “fin­ger­print” their mi­cro­biomes us­ing ge­netic se­quenc­ing; once they’ve done this with thou­sands of sam­ples, they use sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods to pick out which mi­crobes oc­cur most of­ten in the health­i­est plants. These pro­ceed to test­ing, then large-scale field tri­als.

The com­pany’s first com­mer­cial prod­ucts are fo­cused on im­prov­ing drought tol­er­ance, one of the most dif­fi­cult traits to ad­dress through ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion. “It’s like a sym­phony,” founder von Maltzahn says of a plant’s re­ac­tion to wa­ter stress, “and GMOs are like slam­ming down on one note on one in­stru­ment.” Drought con­di­tions are likely to be­come a greater threat to agri­cul­ture be­cause of global warm­ing. Indigo is also in­vest­ing heav­ily in re­search and de­vel­op­ment ef­forts to see how mi­crobes in­flu­ence fac­tors such as ni­tro­gen use and pest re­sis­tance, aim­ing to re­duce or even elim­i­nate the use of syn­thetic pes­ti­cides and fer­til­iz­ers as well as ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied seeds. With the gen­eral pub­lic re­ject­ing chem­i­cal treat­ments and GMOs in favour of “nat­u­ral” foods, Indigo is count­ing on a po­ten­tially multi­bil­lion-dol­lar mar­ket. So far, its mi­crobe coat­ings have boosted cot­ton yields by an av­er­age of 14 per­cent in full-scale com­mer­cial tri­als in Texas and wheat yields by as much as 15 per­cent in Kansas.

Indigo chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer David Perry doesn’t want to just mar­ket a suite of seed treat­ments, how­ever. He wants to re­shape the struc­ture of the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try com­pletely, com­pet­ing not only with chem­i­cal com­pa­nies such as Mon­santo and Dow Chem­i­cal, but also with agri­cul­tural dis­trib­u­tors like Cargill and Archer Daniels Mid­land. Perry, a bio­chemist who grew up on a small farm in ru­ral Arkansas, founded two pharma-re­lated com­pa­nies, a drug­maker he even­tu­ally sold for mul­ti­ple bil­lions of dol­lars and an on­line mar­ket­place for re­search sup­plies that went pub­lic in 1999. Af­ter join­ing Indigo in 2015, Perry quickly ze­roed in on a fun­da­men­tal busi­ness chal­lenge: Most farm­ers have no choice but to sell their har­vest at com­mod­ity prices. With­out the op­por­tu­nity to earn more for us­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able meth­ods, they have lit­tle in­cen­tive to al­ter their ways.

For farm­ers to adopt Indigo tech­nol­ogy, they’d need a buyer will­ing to pay a premium for non-GMO, pes­ti­cide-free prod­ucts. So, Perry rea­soned, Indigo would fa­cil­i­tate the sale. To­day the com­pany con­tracts up­front with hun­dreds of farm­ers to buy their en­tire har­vest of, say, Indigo Wheat, at a hefty premium. “Now you’re grow­ing a value-added prod­uct, and that starts to go di­rectly to farm prof­itabil­ity,” he says. Indigo then sells the wheat to end users such as brew­eries, flour mills, and food com­pa­nies, which have be­come more in­ter­ested in trans­parency and con­trol when it comes to the ori­gin of their grains. Perry says he’s bet­ting on a long-term shift away from com­mod­ity agri­cul­ture and to­ward spe­cialty mar­kets, as the cof­fee and co­coa in­dus­tries are see­ing.

While the sci­ence be­hind mi­cro­biome treat­ments is promis­ing, Indigo has a long road ahead. Its suc­cess de­pends on prov­ing that mi­crobes can mean­ing­fully in­flu­ence more than just drought tol­er­ance while at the same time scal­ing up to the kind of sprawl­ing, com­plex oper­a­tion that can buy and sell mil­lions of bushels of grain from tens of thou­sands of farms.

Michael Dean, chief in­vest­ment of­fi­cer for the ven­ture cap­i­tal in­vest­ment plat­form AgFun­der Inc, sees Indigo’s tech­nolo­gies as po­ten­tially dis­rup­tive but sug­gests that one of the big­gest chal­lenges the com­pany will face is per­suad­ing farm­ers to turn their back on com­fort­able re­la­tion­ships with Big Ag. “Farm­ers have tended to buy seed from the guy their dad bought from, and sold it to the same grain el­e­va­tor,” Dean says. “This is go­ing to make waves, and not ev­ery­one will be happy about it.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.