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Microbiomes: Macro Bucks for NC Ag Biotech

It's not dirt; it's a microbiome. Photo courtesy of Nick Pironio, Vernon G. James Research & Extension Center, NC State University

When you think of microbes on food, you might think of molding bread  left too long in the pantry.

Some may think of foods transformed through fermentation by bacteria or yeast, such as beer, wine, coffee, chocolate, yogurt, sauerkraut or, again, bread.

And unless you've been living in a cave the past few years, you've been hearing a lot more lately about the microbes that live in our intestines. Research shows that these microbes play such an important role in our health and digestion that doctors are now using fecal transplants to re-populate unbalanced colons with the curative power of healthy bacteria from donor poop.

Well, it turns out that plants also rely on microbes living on, in, and around their roots to aid or enable their ability to access nutrients and moisture from the soil. 

A report published last year by the American Academy of Microbiology (AAM), "How Microbes Can Help Feed the World," suggests that we put a greater focus on the interactions between plants and microbes in the soil. Doing so, according to the AAM, could help us meet the increasing demand for agricultural output needed to feed, clothe, fuel, and otherwise serve the demands of a growing human population.

The AAM report explains that microbes are a major component of unsterilized soils. The organisms within an environment such as soil are known as a microbiome. All plants growing in soil have some form of give-and-take relationship with the microscopic "bugs" in the mix, producing a range of benefits involving growth and vigor.

Digging reveals 'intimate partners'

“Microbes support plant health by increasing the availability of nutrients, enhancing plant root growth, neutralizing toxic compounds in the soil, making plants more resistant to disease, heat, flooding, and drought, and deterring pathogens and predators," says the report. "Microbes and plants are intimate partners in virtually every life process.”

Farmers and growers have used beneficial microbes to enhance the production of their crops on an industrial scale for well over a hundred years. Today, scientists are able to use new techniques, such as advanced gene sequencing, to better understand what takes place in the soil between plants and their surroundings. Concurrently, it’s getting cheaper and easier for them to sequence an organism’s genetic makeup, or genome. That has opened the door to industrial testing of entire soil microbe communities, which can involve hundreds or thousands of different microbes.

The report suggests key areas that need more work to further develop commercial solutions which can benefit global food production. These include scientific challenges, developing new tools and approaches for research, and finding more ways to get these technologies into the hands of farmers.

NC: global hub of ag biotech, nexus of microbial work

Understanding the microbiome is one of the hottest areas of interest in the ag biotech industry. My former employer, Novozymes, the Danish industrial enzyme manufacturer whose North American headquarters is in Franklinton, started turning the microbiome into a macro business.  It bought the Canadian group Philom Bios in 2007, followed by the Brazil-based Turfal in 2010 and the larger EMD/Merck Crop BioScience group of Milwaukee in 2011. In 2013 it added the South Dakota-based TJ Technologies.

Almost all of the large seed biotech companies have jumped aboard, making major acquisitions in recent years to access related technologies and existing product pipelines.

  • Bayer CropScience led the way in 2012 with the purchase of AgraQuest, of Davis, Calif.
  • BASF followed, buying Iowa's Becker Undewood.
  • Syngenta bought Florida's Pasteuria.
  • The activity continued in 2013 with Bayer acquiring Prophyta, of Germany, and
  • Monsanto acquiring Agradis, of California.
  • In December 2013, Novozymes and Monsanto announced a $300 million commercial alliance in which both companies share research and commercialization efforts, as well as revenue, of their microbial product portfolios.

All of these ag biotech giants have headquarters or major installations in North Carolina.

The Monsanto/Novozymes alliance brings together the largest seed company in the world and the leading player in microbial ag products. In announcing the new alliance, Monsanto leaders indicated they’re targeting their Research Triangle Park site as the company’s center for microbial research.

And the list goes on

Additional recent microbiome activity in North Carolina's burgeoning ag biotech sector includes:

  • A local group of experienced entrepreneurs and researchers in ag biotech founded the Research Triangle Park company AgBiome in 2013. This group has demonstrated early success in quickly raising $14.5 million in a Series A round of financing.
  • Around the same time, FMC Corp. acquired the Center for Agricultural and Environmental Biosolutions, based out of RTI International. FMC has indicated this is just the start of its ag-related presence in RTP.

All of this activity paints a promising picture for North Carolina’s leadership role in the growing use of microorganisms to enhance growing things.

And if you spend time in a garden this weekend, or re-pot some porch plants, remember you're not just digging in the dirt. You're interacting with a very special microbiome.

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