California startup Pivot Bio gets to the root of the fertilizer challenge by modifying microbes to better support nitrogen fixation

How does Nitrogen affect the growth of plants?

It’s well understood that plants need nitrogen to grow. As the fifth most abundant element in the universe, nitrogen is a component of all proteins. The familiar N on the Periodic Table of Elements is also found in every living animal, plant, and organism. Yet, when used excessively as in commercial fertilizers, it can cause “nutrient pollution” in the form of excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water and throughout the environment. Equally disturbing, an estimated 5% of greenhouse gases are in the form of nitrous oxide, a substance 300 times more potent than CO2 and which originates from nitrogen fertilizer.

Simply put, the wide scale overuse of nitrogen-based fertilizers is unsustainable and ultimately is becoming counterproductive for increasing crop yield.

Now agricultural researchers are finding new ways to copy the nitrogen cycle, the process by which bacteria in soil “fix” nitrogen from the air into ammonia (hydrogen added to nitrogen), an essential building block for plant growth. Among the promising organic approaches in use is achieved by harnessing specialized microbes which have evolved to feed off specific species of plant life, such as corn, wheat, rice and other cash crops.

The reason any of this is necessary is due to the extended overreliance on nitrogen as a fertilizer throughout virtually all agricultural areas of the world.

Following the discovery of nitrogen in 1772 by a Scottish physician, scientists gradually developed an understanding of the symbiotic relationship between plants and bacteria. As life took hold on a primordial Earth, they realized, specific bacteria evolved to feed off of the roots of plants. By feasting on the sugars, proteins and vitamins in plants, they draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into ammonia, making the plant grow into a reliable source of food for the bacteria.

However, with the advent of the first nitrogen-based fertilizers in the early 1900s, its use to accelerate crop growth and yield spawned a slow shift from traditional farming methods. Eventually, an over dependence on chemically synthesized fertilizers created an abundance of nitrogen, disrupting nature’s fragile balance. With far too much nitrogen in the soil, the bacteria or microbes which feed off root can avoid expending energy converting nitrogen into ammonia (nitrogen fixation), providing little to no benefit to the plant.

This is where the researchers at Pivot Bio, a startup launched in 2011 based in Berkeley, Calif. enter the picture. Convinced that microbes could be modified to not respond to the profusion of nitrogen in soil, after a decade of experimentation, the founders of the startup identified bacteria that live off corn roots. Their goal was to understand exactly how microbes supported plant health before nitrogen fertilizer permeated groundwater and soil.

Led by Karsten Temme, co founder and CEO of Pivot, the team mapped the microbiome of soil, identifying microbes capable of atmospheric nitrogen fixation and modifying them to further improve the release of nitrogen to the roots of corn. Although they used genetic engineering to unlock genes already present in the microbes’ genome, Mr. Temme says they made the decision early on to avoid transgenic tinkering, or the use of DNA transplanted from another organism to achieve the desired result. By doing so, they may neatly sidestep consumer fears of GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms), outright bans of such products in the European Union, and have fewer regulatory hurdles to overcome.

The resulting product branded as Proven is what the company calls the industry’s “first in-field microbial product to sustainably feed nitrogen daily” to crops.  

During a six year trial with farmers in 13 states and a wide variety of soil types, yields of between 7 to 17 bushels higher per acre than traditionally fertilized corn were reported. Once the fish-food looking substance is mixed with a liquid to activate the microbes, the material is applied once, preferably at planting time. Unlike synthetic fertilizer, there is no need to plow the field for additional applications as the microbes continue to multiply, increasing the nitrogen available to the corn as the root system grows. The microbes are unaffected by heavy rains and won’t runoff into rivers and cause damage to aquatic ecosystems by triggering out of control algae blooms as is common with nitrogen.

To date Pivot Bio has made Proven commercially available in just 23 states, where the product’s modest inventory was sold out. With a Series B round of $70 million led by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy fund (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided the company with its seed capital in the form of a grant in 2011), Mr. Temme says they plan to ramp up production of the second generation of Proven. Soon he expects other microbe-based fertilizers for corn, wheat and rice, the tree crops with currently use half of the world’s nitrogen.

German chemical giant BASF adds new Agrochem Research Center to its existing Research Triangle Park presence

Facility to focus on more precise application of crop treatments and boasts wind tunnel to analyze spray characteristics of products.

As the ag industry’s drive toward ecologically friendly pesticides and sustainable growing practices build ever greater momentum, the world’s largest agrochemical companies keep doubling down. In addition to the hundreds of billions that have been invested in merger and acquisition activity in recent years (up close to 300% since 2011), the top-tier players continue to enlarge their portfolios with new bets on biotechnology, genomics, and naturally-derived agrochemicals. The Research Triangle Park is renown for hosting several innovative agrochemical companies, including the startup, AgBiome.

Although the trend leans heavily toward finding alternatives to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the manner and accuracy (or lack thereof) by which crop treatments are applied can also help reduce the environmental impact of pesticides. When pesticides are sprayed from a nozzle, where the substance ends up in the form of droplets depends on what’s called spray drift. Whether applied with a handheld device, a sprayer towed by a tractor, or from a crop duster overhead, the dust or droplets can miss their target.

It’s a serious problem not only due to the health threat it poses to farm workers, the general public, and wildlife, but because it can render nearby crops worthless if they have organic certification or the pesticide isn’t registered for use with the crop. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, up to 70 million pounds of pesticides are lost to drift each year. While the direct costs of this degree of waste are difficult to calculate, ultimately they’re presumably passed on to the consumer at the supermarket.

In an age when public aversion to toxins in the environment has reached unprecedented levels and the EPA is banning entire classes of pesticides, drift is an issue which merits scrutiny. As the largest chemical producer in the world, it’s a major concern of BASF. This month the Germany chemical giant announced a ramping up its focus on the science of application technology with its new Agrochemical Application Research Center.

Situated at the firm’s existing BASF North American Crop Protection Division in Research Triangle Park, NC, the facility will “bring new technologies to growers that reduce drift, use rates and fulfill required regulatory testing”, stated Paul Rea, Senior Vice President North America, BASF’s Agricultural Solutions division.Data gathered from wind tunnel testing will also be used to provide the firm’s Technical Service teams with application guidelines and other information to educate users on correct application of BASF pesticides in the field.