Industrial Biotechnology

A Conversation with Marcus Meadows-Smith

The agriculture industry will require unprecedented levels of innovation if it is to sustainably feed a rapidly growing world population. Biopes-ticides are among the bevy of solutions being developed to help grow more food on less land.

BioConsortia (Davis, CA, USA) develops microbial solutions that enhance plant phenotypes and increase crop yields. It is pioneering the use of directed selection in identifying teams of microbes—working like plant breeders and selecting plants based on targeted characteristics, then isolating the associated microbial community. The company’s Advanced Microbial Selection (AMS) process enriches the crop micro-biome, allowing it to identify organisms that influence the expression of beneficial traits in plants. The company uses a powerful toolkit including multi-trait screening, colonization technologies, microbiome analysis, genomics, and gene editing. Its pipeline includes biofungicides and nematicides; biostimulants that further increase yields in both high-yielding and stressed agronomic conditions; and products for nitrogen-fixation and fertilizer use efficiency.

In early December 2020, BioConsortia and Mosaic Company (Tampa, FL), the largest US producer of potash and phosphate fertilizer, announced a collaboration to develop and launch nitrogen-fixing microbial products for corn, wheat and other major non-legume row crops. Over 100 million tons of nitrogen are applied to crops, but applications can be inefficient with losses to air, ground water, and waterways, sometimes having unintended consequences. Mosaic and BioConsortia are collaborating to develop beneficial microbial products designed to reduce the amount of conventional nitrogen fertilizer application, while increasing crop yields and grower revenue. The Mosaic–BioConsortia partnership is aimed at developing yield-enhancing in-furrow and seed treatment products that can be used either stand-alone or in combination with conventional chemistries and fertilizers. BioConsortia has already discovered naturally-occurring spore forming microbes capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen and colonizing corn, wheat and other non-leguminous plants. The collaboration project will utilize BioConsortia’s patented Advanced Microbial Se-lection (AMS) process and other proprietary tools, including multi-trait screening, colonization technologies, genomics, and gene editing, as well as BioConsortia’s existing collection of nitrogen fixing bacteria. The collaboration has a comprehensive development and field trial phase, followed by a distribution agreement for row crops in the Americas. In addition to nitrogen fixing products, Mosaic will also have access to Bio-Consortia’s pipeline of phosphorus and potassium solubilization microbial products that could be combined with Mosaic’s existing range of potash and phosphate fertilizers to deliver a new generation of improved fertilizer products, thereby reducing growers input costs and boosting crop yields. Mosaic will have exclusive rights to the nitrogen fixing technology for core row crops in the Americas, initially focused on corn, wheat, cotton and sugarcane.

BioConsortia will retain all rights to the technology for fruit, vegetable, turf and ornamental crops and for all uses outside of the Americas. BioConsortia will receive an upfront payment and research funding, as well as royalties.

Industrial Biotechnology spoke with BioConsortia CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith about the landmark deal and the future of ag microbials.

INDUSTRIAL BIOTECHNOLOGY: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Could you walk us through BioConsortia’s business model and the deal with Mosaic?

MARCUS MEADOWS-SMITH: Our business model is to be an R&D company. We develop products and take them as far as registration, and then work behind the scenes with partners who bring the products to market. We have successfully completed field trials on a remarkable number of products that are better than the best biologicals on the market today. We have achieved high levels of efficacy with our fungicides and nematicides and a higher level of consistency both for those biopesticides and for our biostimulant products. We have a number of products moving through the registration pipeline and under evaluation by various Tier 1 and Tier 2 agrochemical and fertilizer companies.

Our most recent news is our major collaboration deal with Mosaic, a fertilizer company with $9 billion in revenue that produces phosphate and potassium. They don’t sell nitrogen fertilizers today, so we’re bringing in microbes that fix atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a form that the plant can use for growth. Certain microbes and plants have evolved this symbiotic relationship that has been around for millennia for leguminous crops. But what we’re doing now is using a microbe that will do this for corn, wheat and other non legumes. People have tried this for decades and it had been considered close to impossible. Nitrogen fixation is an energy-intensive process, so microbes have feedback loops that switch off nitrogen fixation in the presence of ample nitrogen. We apply gene-editing and other natural processes to switch off those feedback loops. We used our Advanced Microbial Selection (AMS) toolkit to select for robust, nitrogen-fixing microbes that colonize corn and wheat. Our team, highly skilled in gene editing, was able to do the rest. Now we have a microbial product that can continuously fixate atmospheric nitrogen for non-legume row crops, even in the presence of ample nitrogen.

The deal with Mosaic gives them commercial rights to the products coming out of this pipeline in the Americas. They have a large sales and marketing team on the ground who understand the fertilizer business. What we’re doing at the moment is moving the products from greenhouse development stage into field trials with independent contract research organizations as well the Mosaic team.

IB: Is this your first partnership with a fertilizer company?

MEADOWS-SMITH: We have a relationship with a New Zealand fertilizer company in the biostimulants space, but this is the first major, multi-country deal. This is a very substantial collaboration and our first in nitrogen-fixation. What’s really exciting is having a partner in Mosaic that is excited and capable of delivering major growth for our nitrogen and fertilizer technologies. There are a lot of biopesticide and biostimulants companies but very few working on nitrogen-fixation or having the capabilities to do so. Therefore, this is a win-win for Mosaic and BioConsortia.

IB: Overall, are you seeing more farmer acceptance of microbial products? Initially there seemed to be hesitancy in the agriculture community to use alternatives to chemical solutions.

MEADOWS-SMITH: Yes, absolutely. Biopesticides today are about a $3.5 billion market, and biostimulants are about$1.5 billion. Growth estimates range from 10–15% per annum. Syngenta’s acquisition of Valagro late last year shows that major companies are very interested in the space as well.

Biopesticides are still largely used more on high-value fruit and vegetable crops. For row crops, farmers oftentimes found them too clumsy to use or there wasn’t enough of a commercial benefit to justify the switch. Some early biopesticide launches had to be in cold chain, or they needed to be used in a certain timeframe to be effective. What we’re doing with Mosaic is bringing forward row crop microbials that are robust and easy to use. They can be mixed with a fertilizer or put on seed, and remain effective. There are one or two products on the market today for nitrogen-fixation, but they are gram-negative microbes that are harder to use and don’t have a long shelf life. Our product offers ease to the grower; it just has to be thrown into the tank so they only have to go across when they are laying the fertilizer.

Our microbe can also be applied as a seed treatment on corn. It lives for up to two years so if a grower saves seed from one year to the next or if for some reason the big seed companies hold the stock for a season it will still be viable.

IB: Do you expect new tools like synthetic biology to accelerate growth in biopesticide offerings, or for there to be any regulatory or consumer-acceptance challenges?

MEADOWS-SMITH: Yes, we are already using gene-editing tools for nitrogen-fixing microbes but also to get overexpression of things like fungicidal or nematicidal metabolites. The big difference now is that these tools are very precise; you can change single base pairs within the genome of the microbe and be very targeted around what you’re doing. In the past, it was akin to working in the dark and using a shotgun. You’d have to go through thousands and thousands of iterations and you’d often get unintended consequences, like inserting DNA into an important functional gene that as a result stopped working. Now, they’re much more precise.

These organisms are also, at least in the US, largely considered to be natural. You are not adding in foreign DNA, you’re making very small changes to the existing genetic material of the microbe. Obviously we watch the conversation very closely but there is a difference between a piece of DNA being moved from one organism to a different species and gene editing.

That being said, in the US 98% of processed foods have GMOs. So, I think within the US the vast majority of people are accepting of GMOs. And in countries that are more negative to genetic modification, we see gene editing being looked upon more favorably. Largely the public sees the benefits of bringing forward technologies that provide people with healthy, nutritious and affordable food. They understand that this is a way to drive higher yields at lower costs and with environmental benefits. However, we will also investigate developing natural variants of the microbes for the organic food sector to provide a benefit to all types of agriculture.

IB: Looking ahead, agriculture will have to feed a lot more people, while pesticides aren’t working as well as they used to, fewer new active ingredients are being introduced, and several blockbuster pesticides are facing increasing regulatory pressure and deselection. Can microbial products make up the shortfall? What sort of penetration do you see microbials making in the marketplace?

MEADOWS-SMITH: Yes, I think these new tools will allow us to make much more effective microbial products. Today, microbial solutions are focused on high-value fruit and vegetable crops, but we will now begin to bring more cost-effective, efficacious and consistent solutions to row crops as well. That will be a big change in the near future, in just a few years’ time. Nitrogen fixation will certainly be an active area of research for row crop microbials, but we also see effective products for crop protection. We have highly efficacious fungicides and nematicides in registration phase, and in future we expect to bring forward insecticides too.

IB: How is the funding environment?

MEADOWS-SMITH: For companies that are innovating and protected by IP, the funding environment looks very healthy.

Companies like Pivot Bio (Berkeley, CA, USA) and Indigo Ag (Boston, MA, USA) are well-funded, as are we. The Mosaic deal includes funding the recent announcements such as Syngenta-Valagro and FMC-Novozymes deals show that Big Ag is willing to invest to advance their position. There’s demand from growers and from marketing companies for these products. They want the environmental benefits but also solutions are effective, cheaper and faster to register.

For BioConsortia, the deal with Mosaic includes funding. To meet the objectives of the partnership, we are moving into offices and lab space that more than doubles our footprint. We are continuing to add people, particularly in genomics and gene-editing but also in the microbiome. Having a better understanding of the microbiome has helped us improve the efficacy and consistency of our products. Even with the pandemic, we are still very much in growth mode.