Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks are forming a new company to exploit the potential of synthetic biology to improve microbes that help plants grow. The unnamed firm launches with a $100 million investment from the parent companies and Viking Global Investors.
A major scientific target of the two firms’ technology will be to design microbes with an improved ability to deliver nitrogen to plants. Farmers spend a significant amount of money on fertilizer to replace the nitrogen that growing crops take from the soil. And it is difficult to cost-effectively deliver nitrogen to plant roots without causing environmental damage from fertilizer runoff.
Plants such as soybeans, peas, peanuts, and other legumes benefit from symbiotic microbes that live in the soil and in plant tissues. The most well-known of these microbes are those that convert nitrogen from the air to make ammonia in a process called nitrogen fixation. As ammonia, the nitrogen becomes biologically available for plants to take up and use for biosynthesis.
In legumes, the nitrogen-fixing microbes live in nodules that form on plants’ roots. But other important crops lack the ability to host so-called endophytic microbes.
“The endophytic microbes to be developed by the company aim to provide a platform to flexibly deliver new agronomic advantages. This is expected to have a profound positive benefit to growers, agriculture, and society alike,” Bayer and Gingko say.
It is not yet clear how modified agricultural microbes will be regulated. “The exact regulatory path depends on what claims will be made on the label and will differ by geography,” says says Mike Miille, vice president of strategy for Bayer Crop Science’s Biologics business.
The two firms say research will be based both in Ginkgo’s hometown of Boston and at Bayer’s West Sacramento, Calif., R&D center for plant biologics.
Bayer has been investing in agricultural microbes for several years. In 2012, it acquired the biological pesticide company AgraQuest for $425 million. Miille is AgraQuest’s former CEO and will be interim CEO of the new company.
The new company will take full advantage of fast growth at Gingko Bioworks, which has raised $154 million from investors. The synthetic biology start-up uses genomics, machine learning, and automation to improve microbes that its customers use to produce fragrances, flavors, and other biobased chemicals.