By Martin LaMonica
The role of the trillions of microbes in the human body is poorly understood—and that’s even more so in plants. A growing number of companies are trying to harness the power of microscopic bugs that live in and around plants to reinvent how agriculture is done.
Last week, I visited a greenhouse where scientists are testing how different microorganisms can make agriculture crops grow productively in difficult conditions. The greenhouse is in Cambridge, MA, the home of startup Symbiota, a company hatched by and backed with $7.5 million from Flagship Ventures.
In one spot, for example, scientists in white lab coats were growing small pots with wheat to see how well microbially treated plants withstand water stress. “This is the equivalent of clinical trials in humans,” Symbiota president and co-founder Geoffrey von Maltzahn says, pointing to the pots.
The idea here is to use the biology of microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, to enhance plant yields. Although it’s still in development, this technology—the rough equivalent of taking probiotic supplements to aid digestion—has attracted big agriculture companies Monsanto and Novozymes through the BioAg Alliance, as well as venture-backed scientists.
Symbiota, which was created by Flagship Ventures’ VentureLabs, grew out of the belief that too little innovation was happening in deciphering plant microbiomes—and agriculture in general, von Maltzahn says. Two years ago, Flagship had started Seres Health to make drugs using knowledge of the human microbiome and looked to take that idea to other areas, including agriculture.
“It’s a pretty powerful concept, that you might be able to tap into (the plant biome) and have natural solutions that are capable of forming symbiotic partnerships with plants to augment any functional property of a plant, in any tissue, across its entire life span,” von Maltzahn says.
In people, there’s a growing understanding of the role the microbiome plays in fighting off diseases and health in general. There’s a similar symbiotic relationship between plants and microbes, which can live inside leaves and roots or be drawn from the soil.
Symbiota is first focusing on making seed coatings that will help crops grow in water and nitrogen-stressed situations. It’s been doing field trials with wheat, corn, soy, and other industrial-scale crops. Von Maltzahn won’t say what kind of yield improvement its tests have shown, but he says the results of field trials have been positive. “Crops can grow in very stressful environments,” he says.
Based on its experiments, Symbiota is building software that allows scientists to examine the traits communities of bacteria and fungi provide plants. By comparing the current biomes of corn with ancestral varieties that grow in dry areas, for example, scientists can identify the microbes that can help make corn grow well in droughts. Then Symbiota can produce treatments that help plants get access to the desired microbes in their environments.
One of the advantages of agricultural microbials is that backers expect treatments can be brought to market within a few years, compared to a decade or more for genetically modified strains. Also, development of these recipes can be done within a startup since it doesn’t necessarily cost hundreds of millions of dollars, board member and Flagship investor Ignatio Martinez says.
Other startups in the field include Davis, CA-based BioConsortia, which raised a $15 million Series B round from Khosla Ventures and Otter Capital earlier this year, and AgBiome, which brought in a $17.5 million Series A round earlier this month.
AgBiome brought in investment from Syngenta, Monsanto, and Novozymes, a sign that big ag companies are spreading their bets in this emerging field, much the way pharmaceutical companies rely on startups. Already last year, Monsanto bought some of the assets of Agradis, a company formed by Synthetic Genomics that had identified microbes to enhance crop productivity.