In the late-1990s, scientists Russell Rodriguez and Regina Redman were conducting research in Yellowstone National Park when they made a discovery. They wondered why a particular type of grass, called Panic grass, was able to grow in the geothermal areas of the park while other plants couldn’t. They found it was all about fungus. Specifically, they found the grass carried a endophyte–an organism that lives symbiotically within a plant–which made it more heat-resistant. The grass could grow in ground temperatures of up to 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit) but would die off at about 38 degrees Celsius if the fungus was removed.
Since then, Rodriguez and Redman have worked to see whether the endophytes might have uses in other plants, particularly corn and rice, and today they have a product called BioEnsure. Their company, Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies, is now in the final stages of the regulatory approval process, and the technology is seen as a promising alternative to genetic modification. Indeed, several big GMO companies, including Syngenta, are themselves testing AST’s products.
Back at the lab, Rodriguez and Redman developed a fermentation process to replicate the endophyte and produce formula in both liquid and powder form. The liquid is sprayed onto seeds before planting. The powder is aimed at the developing world, where refrigeration is an issue (the liquid needs to be kept at a constant temperature). Eighteen U.S. states now allows sales of BioEnsure, and Zachery Gray, Adaptive’s VP of business development, says he expects the full 50 to come onboard in the next four months.
Under lab conditions, the corn seeds used 32% less water and produced 50% more mass compared to conventional corn, Gray says. The company charges based on the yield increases it promises. So, if a farmer can expect a minimum 3% increase–4.5 extra bushels on an acre that would normally produce 150 bushels–that’s the premium they would pay. Adaptive actually promises to double farmers’ investments.
Companies like Monsanto have developed drought-tolerant varieties of crops using genetic modification methods. But Gray claims they are not as effective as Adaptive’s fungus-laced seeds. “There’s nothing on the market that’s had the success we’ve had,” he says. “It’s ironic that major companies that have spent a lot of money on producing drought-resistant genetically modified crops have all contacted us. If they were successful, they wouldn’t be coming to talk to us.”
Monsanto and Syngenta might dispute that characterization, but there’s no doubt Adaptive has momentum. It was recently announced as one of 17 finalists in USAID’s Securing Water For Food Challenge and will receive a grant of between $100,000 and $3 million shortly. The company has raised $2.2 million from investors.
The idea of deliberately spiking crops with fungus may be unpalatable to some. But Gray says it’s harmless. “Nobody is actually eating this fungus, though it is completely safe. We’ve had toxicity tests done on it. In any case, there are far worse things that go on to crops.”