Soil Microbes in the Spotlight

May 2, 2018 | Sustainable Agriculture |

The Dirt:

Getting the most out of soil is a goal of small and big farmers alike. As they face the challenges of pests and diseases or regulatory pressure to use less water and less fertilizer, farmers are turning to companies who can provide microbial soil solutions to help them achieve crop health and environmental sustainability.

Microbes sustain life on earth. In fact, we live in their world! Microbes (also called microorganisms) grow and reproduce in and on your body, in soil and on rocks, within plant roots and on their leaves, in wetlands, oceans and fresh waterways, and even in space! Microbes decompose and recycle the dead; keep us healthy, make the oxygen we breathe, fix nitrogen, control pollution, are a source of renewable fuel, and feed the world!

A microbiome is a community of microbes living in the same habitat.  Your gut microbiome, for instance, is specific to you, and the right balance of prebiotics and probiotics plays an important role in the digestion of food, metabolism, inflammation and immune function. (read our post: Your Second Brain: Gut Microbiota).

Microbes perform critical functions in soil food webs, such as decomposing organic materials, cycling nutrients, and improving soil structure. (USDA NRCS).

Likewise, soil microbiomes play a vital role in the health of plants. When a soil microbiome is alive with interacting bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and earthworms, plants are able to better absorb and hold water, nutrients, and minerals.

Did you know? Penicillin, tetracycline, and streptomycin are just a few of the several hundred antibiotics originating from soil microbes.

Video: The Living Soil: How Unseen Microbes Affect the Food We Eat

Harnessing the Power of Microbes

“Agriculture is the original biological technology, and the more we can learn to work with the soil microbiome, the more we can discover new ways to add value to farmers and return to its biological, and more sustainable, roots,” Jason Kelly, co-founder of Joyn Bio and CEO of Ginkgo Bioworks.

Microbes help plants fix nitrogen from the air for growth and maturity, absorb phosphorus for health and vigor, preserve water to shield from drought, or can protect a plant from fungal disease.

Ever wonder why plants are able to grow in the desert? The microbiome in and around the roots of that plant help it survive amidst drought and heat. Scientists can isolate these microbes and apply them to crops which face drought conditions. For example, Indigo Ag has developed microbial treated seeds for wheat to increase plant health in the face of water stress.

Reducing the application of nitrogen fertilizers is a high priority of sustainable farming. Nitrogen is necessary for plant growth and maturity but can have environmental downsides. Some plants, like legumes (peas, beans, and lentils), naturally “fix” nitrogen with the help of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Scientists at Joyn Bio are engineering the DNA of the naturally nitrogen-fixing bacteria found in legumes to provide meaningful levels of nitrogen to other crops, such as corn, wheat, and rice.

The startup Pivot Bio focuses on enabling microbes to fix and supply more nitrogen to corn. In the future, their ON Technology™ will be used to provide crops with better access to phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients.

BioAg Alliance, representing the combined forces of Monsanto and Novozymes, creates microbial-based fertilizers, fungicides, and insecticides that help plants take up nutrients and defend against pests, disease, and weeds.

BASFBayerBioWorksCertis, DowDuPont and Syngenta, AgbiomeAgrinos ArystaLifeScience Bioconsortia, Marrone Bio Innovations, Plant Impact and Valent BioSciences and Holganix are some of the other companies involved with agricultural microbial-based solutions for crop protection and enhancement.

The Agricultural Microbial Market is Booming

According to marketing research firm Research and Markets, this market is projected to reach $6.01 billion by 2022 from $3.09 billion in 2017. Additionally, since microbial crop protection poses fewer risks than conventional pesticides, the EPA generally requires less data and has shorter review times. This reduces the timeline to development by years and the cost of product development by millions of dollars.

“Nature’s toolbox of beneficial bacteria and fungi can help us produce healthier crops with higher yields while reducing the need for fertilizer and other chemicals.”

Ejner Bech Jensen, Novozymes’ Vice President for BioAg Research.

Bringing Microbes Home — What does this mean to you?

If you maintain a lawn or a garden, you have hard-working soil microbes already as friendly neighbors! If any of these areas struggle with pests and diseases, there is most likely an imbalance in the soil microbiome. Look into soil micro biologicals to help you alleviate pest and disease pressure without the use of chemicals.

The Bottom Line: 

Microbial seed coatings and soil applications are providing farmers a way to enrich their soil and improve the health and yield of their crops, using less fertilizer, less water, and fewer pesticides.

Sources:

Soils &  Organisms : USDA ARS, www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/sidney-mt/northern-plains-agricultural-research-laboratory/nparl-docs/just-for-kids/soils-organisms/

Mycorrhizal Applications, mycorrhizae.com/.

Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/biological-nitrogen-fixation-23570419.

Soil Science Society of America, 2015.   When Soil Won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. (pptx)

“BioConsortia Inc.” BioConsortia Inc – BioConsortia Inc, bioconsortia.com/news-and-events/media-coverage/230-fertilizer-focus-march-2018.

Dunn, Elizabeth G. “Indigo’s Scientists Are Replacing Pesticides With Bacteria.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 16 Apr. 2018, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-16/indigo-s-scientists-are-replacing-pesticides-with-bacteria.

“Nutrient Pollution.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 20 Feb. 2018, www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution.

Ramírez-Puebla, Shamayim T., et al. “Gut and Root Microbiota Commonalities.” Applied and Environmental Microbiology, aem.asm.org/content/79/1/2.full.pdf html.

Reese, Matt. “Ohio Ag Net | Ohio’s Country Journal.” Ohio Ag Net Ohios Country Journal, ocj.com/2017/02/biologicals-are-here-to-stay-in-agriculture-but-what-are-they/.

Savage, Steven. “Update On The Rapidly Growing Biologicals Sector In Agriculture.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 15 Mar. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/stevensavage/2018/03/15/update-on-the-rapidly-growing-biologicals-sector-in-agriculture/#2b20ace155be.

Society, Microbiology. “Society Publishes New Briefing on Food Security from the Soil Microbiome.” Microbiology Society, microbiologysociety.org/news/society-news/new-briefing-on-food-security-from-the-soil-microbiome.html.

Sonon, Leticia S, and L. Mark Risse. “Soil Inoculants.” UGA Cooperative Extension, 1 June 2012, extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.html?number=C990&title=Soil Inoculants.

“The BioAg Alliance Readies New Seed Coatings to Help Farmers Achieve Better Harvests.” Novozymes, www.novozymes.com/en/news/news-archive/2018/01/the-bioag-alliance-readies-new-seed-coatings-to-help-farmers-achieve-better-harvests.

“The Factory of Life: Why Soil Biodiversity Is Important.” 2010, ec.europa.eu/environment/archives/soil/pdf/soil_biodiversity_brochure_en.pdf.

“The Holganix Blog.” Update: Holganix Agriculture Trial Results, www.holganix.com/blog/update-holganix-agriculture-trial-results.