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Promise of self-fertilizing attracts investment

Bayer bets big on a future where crops are designed to fertilizer themselves

There are a lot of efforts underway to optimize and minimize fertilizer use in crop production.

Precision agriculture tools are improving the accuracy of where fertilizer is placed so that as much of it as possible reaches the plants that need it.

And researchers from at least two Canadian universities — Ottawa’s Carleton University and Western University in London, Ont. — are working on smart fertilizers that only deploy when the plants are in need of nutrients.

The latest approach is developing crops that can fertilize themselves. It’s something that life sciences giant Bayer is betting heavily on — the German multinational recently announced a new partnership with Boston-based biotech start-up Ginkgo Bioworks to create a new company focused on the plant biome.

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The goal of the yet-to-be-named company, funded through a US$100 million investment by Bayer, Ginkgo and U.S. hedge fund Viking Global Investors, is to lessen dependence on chemical fertilizers by letting plants create their own.

Here’s how it works

Legume crops like beans, peas, lentils, soybeans and peanuts can fix nitrogen naturally. They attract bacteria called rhizobia that form little nodules on a plant’s roots and then work to convert free nitrogen from the air and soil into ammonia. This helps the plant feed itself without needing any — or as much — added fertilizers.

Other crops like corn, wheat, and rice — some of the world’s leading staple food crops —aren’t attractive hosts to the nitrogen-fixing microbes, making their fertilizer needs pretty high. Not only is this expensive for farmers, but there are environmental impacts, too, ranging from carbon emissions to algal blooms.

The Bayer/Gingko partnership is hoping to create what some are calling designer bacteria: developing nitrogen-fixing microbes that are attracted to the roots of any plant (not just legumes) so that they can be attached to wheat or corn seed, for example, through a special coating.

It won’t be an easy undertaking, though.

Scientists will need to search through hundreds of thousands of bacteria to find potential microbes for sequencing in an effort to determine which genes are behind nitrogen-fixing activity. Once those are identified, they can be used to develop custom DNA for new, scientifically designed bacteria. There’s no certainty, however, on how those microbes will react once they’re outside the lab and exposed to the complex soil environment.

If successful, this could be a game changer for agriculture with significant impacts on global fertilizer markets. According to market research reports, the value of the global nitrogenous fertilizer market was pegged at over US$107 billion in 2016, with expectations that this will reach approximately US$127 billion by 2021.

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