Microbes better harvests

Microbes for better harvests

6:01 AM, 23rd March 2018
Microbes for better harvests
Trials demonstrated significant corn root development with Acceleron Seed Applied Solutions + Acceleron B-300 SAT (right) vs. Acceleron Seed Applied Solutions only (left)

By Colin Bletsky

As the global population continues to grow, farmers are tasked with a tall order: They need to get the most out of every acre and, at the same time, reduce the environmental impact caused by their crops.

It is, undeniably, an uphill struggle. After all, how are you supposed to make more—with less? And yet The BioAg Alliance, now in its fourth year, is helping the world’s farmers do just that.

The Alliance brings together Novozymes’ BioAg operations and capabilities within microbial discovery, development and production with Monsanto’s microbial discovery, advanced biology, field testing and commercial capabilities. By pooling resources and expertise, we’re helping farmers globally to increase their production, while making sustainability a priority.

Now, those efforts are bearing fruit. But before we dive into the latest developments, let’s take a brief look at the science and methodology behind microbial biotech.

Harnessing the power of nature

Just a spoonful of soil from anywhere on earth contains tens of billions of microbes, many of which help make nutrients and minerals better available to plants. Among other things, these microorganisms can spur growth and increase their resiliency. They can even help stimulate plants’ immune systems, resulting in fewer plant diseases and higher yields.

The hard part is that sifting through and testing each individual microbe for its efficacy is like looking for a needle in a haystack. A haystack the size of New York City.

Using state-of-the-art technology, The BioAg Alliance tries to match crops, such as corn or soybeans, with the perfect microbe. It can be a long process of discovery and elimination. But when we find a match, that discovery reveals a synergy that’s not just a win for the plant—but for the whole planet.

Harnessing the power of nature’s microbes, farmers can produce more crops while emitting less CO2 and reducing the need for fertilizer and pesticides. This benefits agriculture, consumers and the environment, and is important due to a variety of factors, not least the increasing demands from a rising global population and the need to grow food in a more sustainable manner and often in sub-optimal environments. 

The first product goes to market

The BioAg Alliance aims to produce bioyield products, which help plants with nutrient uptake, and biocontrol products, which help protect plants against pests and diseases. The products can be applied to seeds before planting, to soil in-furrow, or to growing crops. They can be used by farmers that grow broad-acre crops such as corn and soy, and on fruits and vegetables. 

The BioAg Alliance announced a breakthrough in 2017 when we introduced the corn inoculant Acceleron B-300 SAT. Derived from a fungus (Penicillium bilaiae) found in soil, Acceleron B-300 SAT increases plants’ ability to take up nutrients. The product has shown to improve corn yields by more than 3 bushels per acre, and it was used by U.S. farmers on more than 4 million corn acres in its first year. It is expected to be applied to between 8-10 million acres in 2018.

Farmers use inoculants like this to protect their crops from yield-robbing threats, improve plant health, and increase nutrient availability. Acceleron B-300 SAT was the first jointly developed product from The BioAg Alliance and an industry milestone since it was the first “upstream” corn inoculant ever developed, meaning this was the first time companies managed to add microbes as part of the seed coating. The microbes stay alive and active for two years on the seed and are generally compatible with other seed coating chemistries. This allows The BioAg Alliance to coat the seeds with the microbial product before they’re shipped to retailers and farmers.

We expect that, by 2025, the inoculant could be applied to more than 90 million acres, and has potential to become one of the biggest biological products in the agriculture industry.

New seed coatings in the pipeline

In January, The Alliance announced an updated R&D pipeline with exciting projects that reflect just how rapidly our understanding of microbes and their symbiotic relationships with plants is evolving.

Among the highlights is the Corn BioYield 2 project, which advanced to Phase 4 (pre-commercial) in the R&D pipeline and is expected to be branded as Acceleron B-360 ST, pending regulatory approvals. Acceleron B-360 ST promotes symbiosis between microbes and corn plants to strengthen root systems and increase plants’ access to nutrients.

Acceleron B-360 ST will be used in combination with Acceleron B-300 SAT and is scheduled to enter the market in 2019.

By helping plants build healthy root systems, biological seed treatments like these enable more efficient uptake of nutrients into the plant. This increase in nutrient uptake has the additional benefit of decreasing the amount of nutrients released into the environment, either via runoff into water supplies or into the air. And, the increases in plant biomass can help to sequester carbon into the soil, particularly in microbes that promote root development. The result is that carbon dioxide is pulled out of the air and stored in the soil.

The BioAg Alliance also announced the achievement of a significant milestone in the Corn BioYield 3 project. Over the past four years, our researchers have screened thousands of microbes across multiple sites to determine which microbes deliver the highest increase in crop yield. A small group of top performers have now been selected for commercial evaluation and development.

Improving soybean health and yield

Projects in the soy pipeline also progressed. The Soy BioYield 2 project is expected to lead to a product for the North American market and a product for South America. Both products contain bacteria that increase soybeans’ uptake of nitrogen, leading to improved plant health and more bountiful harvests. The Soy BioNematicide project is researching a new biological way to control soybean cyst nematodes, a parasitic roundworm that attacks the roots of soybeans and is a devastating pest worldwide causing stunted growth and severe loss of yield. The project has now shown efficacy for four consecutive years.

In addition to the pipeline updates, The BioAg Alliance announced it is preparing for expansion into Europe. Today, The BioAg Alliance products are primarily sold in North and South America, but in 2019-20 The Alliance plans to launch products for growers of corn, oilseed rape and wheat in European markets. The products will mainly be based on Acceleron B-300 SAT and Acceleron B-360 ST technologies.

A bright future for biology

With exciting products coming to market in both the bioyield and biocontrol segments, the next few years look to be promising ones for The BioAg Alliance. And, as sustainability becomes even more ingrained in the fabric of agricultural innovation, their work has never been more important.

Author: Colin Bletsky is Vice President at BioAg, Novozymes.

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