N-fixing tech gets to the spore of the matter
The creation of technology that fixes nitrogen for crops has been a long-sought goal, and companies are finding success with biological approaches. BioConsortia, an innovator focused on microorganism discovery and modification, has a new approach that offers added benefits for users.
CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith says what has come to market so far are nitrogen-fixing microbes, known from research literature. This differs from what BioConsortia has discovered and is developing for the market. “We have ended up with spore-forming microbes that we have selected that colonize corn, wheat and other non-leguminous crops,” he says. “They colonize the root system, and they fix nitrogen.”
That last part — the spore forming — is what changes the equation for getting these microbes from lab to plant root. The current nitrogen-fixing biological products on the market are available in their live, vegetative state, Meadows-Smith explains. In the spore form, the microbe is dormant in the package and on the seed, making it more stable for commercial use.
In addition, BioConsortia has identified and isolated the microbes. Through gene editing, the company has given the organism a boost in its nitrogen-fixing ability. The aim is to bring to market a product that meets specific targets from the start. This is just one technology the company is working on by using the technique. The firm also is developing microbes for nematode control, fungicide activity and plant biostimulants.
For the nitrogen-fixing technology, BioConsortia has teamed with Mosaic to field-test the tool and look toward commercialization.
“We’re in the crop nutrition business, so why would we be looking at things that use less crop nutrition?” asks Kim Nicholson, vice president of Ag Technology and Innovation, part of the Strategy and Growth group at Mosaic. “Fundamentally, we believe that the world is changing. And how we use all of our nutrients — whether its nitrogen, phosphate, potassium, or any of the other micro and macronutrients — is changing. We want to be part of that change and help educate growers how to use crop nutrition in the most efficient and effective ways.”
She says as a company, Mosaic knows a lot about crop nutrition, which is why the partnership works. “We are experts in crop nutrition. We bring our knowledge of the science and markets to the partnership to round out the skills that BioConsortia brings in microbiology and genetics,” she says.
The aim is to reduce nitrogen use or boost nitrogen-use efficiency, and biological products can help. BioConsortia, with its approach called Advanced Microbial Selection, has worked to evolve microorganisms using genomic selection and, where needed, gene editing. Some “wild type” microorganisms that are spore-focused can fix nitrogen, with gene editing ramping up that ability.
Why spores mater
A gram-negative biological product for fixing nitrogen can be effective, but there are limits, Meadows- Smith notes. It is a living organism in a vegetative state, he explains. That limits shelf-life and how it can be used by farmers.
With a gram-positive, spore-focused approach, the company’s bio-based product can offer a range of benefits:
Longer shelf life. The product being developed is optimized for two-year shelf stability, mixability and handling characteristics. That means it can be marketed through traditional crop protection and fertilizer marketing channels.
“What stood out to us with the BioConsortia team is they were thinking upfront about how to make this practical for the grower,” Nicholson says. “They’re thinking about shelf stability, thinking about ease of use. They’re taking their background and experience and making something that a grower can easily adopt.”
Seed treatment option. The product can be used as a seed treatment with an 18-plus month seed life. It can also be used in low-dose in-furrow or drench treatments.
Multiple uses. The spore-focused approach also makes it available to be used in new ways. “We’ve demonstrated that we can get the spore to be coated on a fertilizer granule,” Meadows-Smith explains. “You can imagine that’s a very harsh environment for a living organism to sit on a fertilizer granule. We’ve demonstrated that they can survive when they’re put in the soil. When that microorganism comes close to a plant root, it will spring back to its vegetative state and colonize the plant to fix nitrogen.”
Given this flexibility, Mosaic can bring the tech to market in different ways. The company could partner with a seed company for a treatment, sell through dealers as an in-furrow treatment, or even coat a fertilizer granule for dry application.
BioConsortia’s business model is focused on identifying useful microorganisms and working toward commercialization. At that stage, the startup partners with established industry firms to bring products to market.
In the field
Testing is underway for the nitrogen -fixing technology. In 2022, the company saw a 3.2% bump in wheat yields and a 6-bushel-per-acre boost to corn yields without changing applied-fertilizer levels. In addition, the company saw, what Meadows-Smith calls, “compelling initial results” in vegetables.
Sarah Reiter, head of business development at BioConsortia, says a few vegetable trials were conducted with the N-fixing tech in 2022. “But what we saw was enough to pique our interest,” she says. “We saw almost a 20% improvement over the reduced fertilizer rate and even over the full fertilizer rate.”
Potatoes had a 9% bump in production; peppers rose nearly 20%; and letuce saw more than an 8% improvement. And there’s one area where they saw improvement that may surprise some farmers: soybeans.
“Soybeans, I think, are really exciting for us and probably a market that a lot of people haven’t really thought their way through because we don’t apply N to this crop generally,” Reiter says. “What we’re seeing though is that in the presence of our microbes, at least in this one study, there was some benefit. Perhaps there is some synergy there.”
That single test showed a 9% boost to soybeans when teamed with rhizobia. Reiter and Meadows-Smith point out this is one study, and they’re looking more thoroughly at that question with field tests in 2023.
For 2023, Bioconsortia and Mosaic will be conducting more than 300 field tests across a range of crops to validate performance. The long-term aim is to achieve a 20% yield increase for row crops like corn or wheat, and a 25% boost for vegetable crops, or displace as much as 30% of applied nitrogen. The target for the new tech would be a 2024 launch if field tests show results.
Learn more about BioConsortia’s technology at bioconsortia.com.
Written by: Willie Vogt for FarmProgress