“Every scrap of biological diversity is priceless, to be learned and cherished, and never to be surrendered without a struggle.”
- E.O. Wilson
Small but mighty
Amidst the microscopic universe around us and within us lies the future of microbial production - whether it be for food, fuel, cosmetics, therapeutics, materials, and more.
The discovery of a fraction of the trillions of these microorganisms (i.e., bacteria, fungi, and viruses) has transformed the way we produce chemicals (ethanol) and metabolites (amino acids), break down environmental pollutants, treat cancers, restore our gut flora, and more.
Similarly, our ongoing understanding of the agricultural microbiome - the interactions between a plant and the microbes on its leaves, roots, and surrounding soil essential for development - allows us to use nature's biology to protect and nurture crops.
Leave no trace
Since its conception, farming has re-released 133 gigatons of the original “carbon stocks” accumulated in the Earth’s soil into the atmosphere since its conception. In the last century, the Industrial Revolution introduced new tools and processes that increased agricultural productivity and the rate of soil carbon loss.
The Green Revolution compounded the problem - ushering in a near-ubiquitous adoption of chemicals that disrupt the plant-microbe relationship. Yet if we rewind the clock 700 million years, it was bacteria and fungi that first shaped Earth’s soil structure, establishing livable conditions for the evolution of plants.
Through a process that starts with photosynthesis, plants can now absorb carbon from the atmosphere and feed microbes into the soil - turning leftover residue and root secretions into the building blocks of soil organic matter (SOM).
Thus, with US croplands losing nearly twice as much soil to erosion as the Great Plains lost annually during the peak of the Dust Bowl, researchers, startups, and corporates are turning to the world’s smallest organisms for solutions to the planet’s most existential threats.
The microbe gold rush
Before we can replace chemical inputs and produce food with less impact on the land, we first must find new ways to identify and package endophytes - microbes living on, around, and within plant tissues.
With millions of microorganisms in the soil to sort through, the challenge is two-fold: unraveling plant-microbe interactions (i.e., which bacteria or fungus performs what function for a given plant) and classifying the most valuable strains in the bacterial goldmine.
High throughput environmental DNA sequencing paired with machine learning is beginning to paint a clearer picture of ecosystems' genetic material. Pioneers like Pluton Biosciences and Funga act as the "picks and shovels" - indexing microbes for use in agriculture and forestry. (Concerto Biosciences maps microorganisms for the life science sector, and MicroByre domesticates microbes for the chemicals market.)
A more granular understanding of individual microorganisms allows us to isolate or corral beneficial strains into consortiums to reduce the need for synthetic inputs by aiding in abiotic stress, defending against pests & pathogens, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere & fixing nitrogen in the soil.
In particular, new companies are cropping up to replace traditional seed coatings, typically comprised of pesticide mixtures, with extremophiles - a class of microscopic organisms distinguished by their unique ability to thrive in extreme conditions.
When seeds coated with Puna Bio's extremophiles germinate, they take the bacteria inside the plant to improve stress resistance and increase yields in harsh or degraded environments. Alternatively, Loam Bio's microbial treatment enhances a plant's ability to turn CO2 into simple sugars, which transform into stable forms of carbon in the soil.
To counteract the delivery and fragility challenges facing products derived from living organisms, Andes Ag uses its Microprime™ technology to insulate its engineered microbes from harmful soil conditions and weather by packing them into the free space in the seeds themselves.
It remains unclear how markets in Europe and other geographies, which prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, will react to modified microbes.
Winning over skeptical farmers is an uphill battle. To do so, new microbial solutions will need to overcome growers’ unique set of challenges, including:
Application: Bacterial treatments external to the seed (i.e., coatings and liquid amendments) expose endophytes to erratic weather and soil teeming with existing microbes competing for survival - leaving behind a subset of available strains once the seed germinates.
Behavior change: Instead of being a "drop-in" replacement for chemical counterparts, many microbial products are applied "in-furrow" (close to the seed), which requires expensive specialized equipment.
Stability: Microbial products have historically suffered from limited shelf life (~30 days) at specific temperatures - creating a narrow window for success compared to mass-produced, highly consistent chemicals.
The plant microbiome remains one of the final frontiers in agriculture. ReGen Ventures is excited for a future where new tools help preserve and categorize nature's biological/molecular knowledge and deploy it to solve our most important problems. If this sounds like something you are working on, get in touch!