Joyn Bio: microbial engineering for sustainable nitrogen

Six months ago, in September 2017, I reported a $100 million joint venture announcement between Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks that aimed to engineer nitrogen-fixing microbes, which could be put into seed coatings and provide nutrients to non-legume crops. Now, the joint venture has been named, and Joyn Bio is staffing up. For the ammonia industry, this represents potential demand destruction at a significant scale in the coming decades.

The Joyn Bio team is currently characterizing Bayer’s extensive library of more than 100,000 proprietary microbial strains using the high-throughput advanced analytics of Ginkgo’s foundries. The unprecedented scale of biological data generated using the sophisticated foundry tools is enabling Joyn Bio to identify the strains and characteristics necessary to further develop nitrogen fixing bacteria for sustainable agriculture.
Joyn Bio: Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks Unveil Joint Venture, Joyn Bio, and Establish Operations in Boston and West Sacramento, 03/20/2018

Following the original announcement, the team described the rationale behind the large $100 million investment: “it allows the companies to focus ‘entirely’ on the challenge that they’re tasked with solving over the next four to five years.” The schedule is becoming increasingly specific:

[We] expect greenhouse tests to happen within the next year and a half followed by selected field trials, and a commercial product within the next five to seven years.
Fast Company, A New Custom Plant Microbiome Could Help End The Use Of Polluting Fertilizer, 04/09/2018

I described it as “probably the single most important announcement” in the five years I’ve been writing about sustainable ammonia technologies for one simple reason: this is no normal start-up. It won’t be bootstrapping sales or seeking slow, organic growth. If Joyn Bio succeeds in developing a marketable product, the combined global sales might of Bayer and Monsanto should ensure its swift and successful market penetration. (The $62.5 billion Bayer-Monsanto merger received regulatory approval from Europe last month, and from the US this week.)

However, Joyn Bio is not the leader in this field. In fact, they might be arriving late to the party. The following technologies all announced news during the last couple of months.

Boosting nitrogen fixation in legumes
Farmers have applied commercially-produced bacteria to crops for decades, in a process called inoculation, by which the existing nitrogen-fixing traits of legume crops can be boosted through the application of additional bacteria. Legumes have special “nodules” on the plant’s roots that host these nitrogen-fixing bacteria in a symbiotic relationship that provides the plant with nitrogen. The natural nitrogen-fixing rate, even with inoculation, is often insufficient for the purposes of intensive farming, and nitrogen fertilizers are generally used in addition.

One research project in Brazil is focused on legumes, specifically soy beans, and suggests that the timing and frequency of the inoculations might make the additional fertilizers unnecessary.

It’s possible to increase the number of soybean root nodules – and the bacteria that live there – to increase crop yields. This could remove the need to apply additional nitrogen fertilizers.
American Society of Agronomy: Fixing soybean’s need for nitrogen, 03/21/2018

The researchers have been doing field tests at “several farms in Brazil” since 2016, and have just begun a collaboration with Kansas State University to see how well its results work on US soils.

Boosting nitrogen fixation in non-legumes
Pivot Bio is already preparing to launch the sixth year of its “field-scale beta testing” for a microbial seed-coating for non-legume crops, just like Joyn Bio.

This is “precision microbial adaptation … allowing farmers to change the way they provide nutrition to crops.” The company hopes “to bring the crop microbiome out of hibernation … [using] a powerful technology called computationally-guided microbe remodeling.”

Pivot Bio microbes can be coated onto seeds or added to the furrow as seeds are planted. As the seed germinates, our microbes produce the right amount of nitrogen each day for the crop. They grow alongside the plant, adhere to its roots, and thrive during the later vegetative stages of corn growth. Because the microbes adhere to the plant’s roots, heavy rains do not wash them away. Pivot Bio microbes transfer nitrogen directly to the plant. This significantly reduces leaching and denitrification. These microbes also perform consistently across variable topography, soil type and organic matter.
Pivot Bio: A letter from CEO Karsten Temme: The Crop Microbiome is the Fertilizer of the Future, 02/13/2018

Microbes boosting nitrogen fixation throughout the smart farm
The US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has similar ambitions: “By understanding how microbes work and modifying the environments where they function, we can eventually engineer microbial communities to enhance soil productivity.”

In the next step for the fertilizer strand of its multi-year Microbes to Biomes research project, the Berkeley Lab team is now launching field tests on a 1,000 acre “smart farm” in Arkansas. This project will be unique because of its cross-disciplinary approach, which combines “molecular biology, biogeochemistry, environmental sensing technologies, and machine learning.” Rather than provide a one-microbiome-fits-all solution, the aim of this project is to understand the “significant spatial variability of soil properties within a single field and between fields.” This is the biome version of precision ag’s 4Rs: supporting the soil with the right product, at the right time, at the right rate, in exactly the right place.

A predictive understanding of how the soil microbiome interacts with and affects plant growth is lacking.

“There are millions of species of microbes per cubic centimeter of soil … As you approach the plant root and its interior tissues, you go from millions to dozens. So plants do an exceptional job of farming their microbiomes. They release materials, including antimicrobial compounds, to selectively kill undesirable microbes, and they release food to incentivize beneficial microbes. It’s a highly symbiotic and enormously complex interaction, and we understand almost nothing about it …”

” … It’s a tractable problem, and we’re hoping to prove it in the next year.”
Berkeley Lab: Digging Deep: Harnessing the Power of Soil Microbes for More Sustainable Farming, 03/14/2018