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A New Custom Plant Microbiome Could Help End The Use Of Polluting Fertilizer

A partnership between Bayer and organism design company Ginkgo Bioworks–the winner of the food category of Fast Company’s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards–wants to create plants that don’t need energy-hungry, water-polluting nitrogen fertilizer

A New Custom Plant Microbiome Could Help End The Use Of Polluting Fertilizer
[Photo: Ginkgo Bioworks]

The biggest issue for industrial agriculture is that growing the massive amounts of food we currently need also involves using amounts of energy and creating massive amounts of pollution. Much of those negative outputs come in the form of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers, which are created by converting nitrogen from the air into a spreadable material through a process that’s inefficient and creates greenhouse gases. Field run-off from heavy applications then contaminates waterways.

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To fix that, Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks, an “organism design” company, have joined forces on a $100 million joint venture called Joyn Bio. The effort’s goal is to create a line of microbes that will live in harmony with plants by producing nitrogen that feed their roots naturally, without the use of external fertilizer. Some plants, like soybeans, peas, and other legumes, do this already. The goal is to update staple crops like corn, wheat, and rice to do it, as well. It’s the winner of the food category of Fast Company’s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards.

[Photo: Ginkgo Bioworks]

“The core of the concept and the purpose of the joint venture is fulfilling a need to bring new, better, and more sustainable solutions to growers worldwide,” says Joyn Bio CEO Mike Miille, who expect greenhouse tests to happen within the next year and a half followed by selected field trials, and a commercial product within the next five to seven years.

Bayer will be providing the microbes and much of the funding, while Ginkgo Bioworks will use its array of DNA screeners and algorithms to predict different benefits and compatibility for each strain. Initially, the goal is to tweak plant microbiomes by adding, say, a special seed coating, that would allow farmers to apply 30% less fertilizer for the same yields.

“If farmers just stop using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, then we’d all starve,” Miille says. The trick is to encourage reduction to a more reasonable level, which could keep current production levels steady without bankrupting farmers. Miille considers this the first important milestone, like moving to a hybrid car before you finally decide to go entirely electric. “You really have to take the first big step, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he says.


Correction: We’ve updated this article to reflect that the partnership is between Bayer (not Bayer Pharmaceuticals) and Gingko Bioworks.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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