September 22, 2018

How this synbio startup is transforming agriculture, feeding the world, and cleaning up the planet

planet

The modern farmer is key to solving some of our environmental challenges. Pivot Bio will give farmers the tools they need to slow or even reverse air and water pollution that comes with current agricultural practices. Photo by Mika Luoma on Unsplash

Farming isn’t what it used to be.

Modern agriculture demands expertise from a broad range of disciplines. Microbiologists assess soil quality. Statisticians and mathematicians provide the algorithms and computational tools needed to quantify and forecast farming inputs/outputs, processes, and needs. Agronomists and certified crop advisors help diagnose crop diseases and infestations. Engineers and roboticists design and build the equipment, drones, and sensors that measure and respond to air and water quality. In short, today’s farmers must be technology masters, using the best tools available to grow abundant crops.

Unlike many other industries, farmers buy their inputs at retail (seed, fertilizer and equipment), then sell their commodity or wholesale product back into the market. The margins are tight. As our population increases and additional available land is scarce, we need more productivity out of every acre of farmland. At the same time, farmers are striving to  manage resources better and develop a new model of crop production that protects our air and water while meeting the public’s expectation for sustainable agriculture.

To address these challenges, farmers need and want better tools. Tools that will help them produce abundant, high-quality food with reduced environmental footprint while managing input costs. And the best tool for farmers may be the very soil in which they grow their crops.

In wild ecosystems, plants get essential nutrients like nitrogen from the microbes living in the soil. Bacteria and fungi draw abundant nitrogen from the atmosphere and decomposed materials, then convert it into a usable form for plants.

Modern farming demands more nutrients on a larger scale than the wild ecosystem can provide. Since the early 1900s, agriculture has relied on synthetic chemistry to produce plentiful nitrogen fertilizer. Large-scale farming was impossible without it. As food demands increased, fertilizer use increased, and the environmental consequences began to emerge. In particular, excess nitrogen seeps into waterways. Global fertilizer use contributes to about 500 ocean dead zones around the globe — places so toxic nothing can live. The largest is found in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi River drains. Current estimates say it’s about the size of Connecticut. Synthetic fertilizer also releases nitrous oxide into the air, a greenhouse gas with 300 times the impact of carbon dioxide.

Could farmers reduce their dependence on petroleum-based fertilizers, and thereby reduce impact on air and water quality? Scientists have grappled with these questions for some time, and only recently have breakthroughs been made possible through new tools like synthetic biology and machine learning that have unlocked some of the mysteries of the soil microbiome.

“What if we could help soil microbes more efficiently provide nitrogen to plants?” asks Karsten Temme, CEO and Co-founder of Pivot Bio, a Berkeley-based agtech start-up. “My co-founder Alvin Tamsir and I focused on answering that key question as we began our discovery process. This focus led us to our nitrogen-producing microbial product.”

Pivot Bio has developed nitrogen-producing microbes that adhere to the corn’s roots and feed nitrogen to the corn plant daily. Farmers apply Pivot Bio’s product as they are planting corn, which eliminates a second fertilizer application. Passing through the field fewer times for the same crop means reduced soil compaction and increased savings in fuel cost. “The fewer times a farmer has to get on the tractor, the better for him or her and the operation,” says Karsten.

Pivot Bio

Soil microbes naturally help plants get the nitrogen they need from the environment. Pivot Bio dug roots earlier in the season to measure microbe colonization in its 2018 beta testing program, Intent To Pivot. Courtesy: Pivot Bio

“We are helping transform tomorrow’s agriculture today,” says Karsten. His vision includes land that works for the farmer, with microbes providing the right nutrients to the right place at the right time throughout the growing season. Pivot Bio’s first generation product provides corn with about 25 pounds of nitrogen per acre. This application alone, if used across all the corn in the U.S., has the environmental equivalent of removing about 1 million cars from the road.

I first met Karsten back in 2006, when he and fellow graduate student Alvin Tamsir were part of a vanguard of academic labs exploring the fledgling field of synthetic biology. Karsten and Alvin became interested in how they could apply the microbial engineering expertise of Christopher Voigt’s lab to solve challenges in agriculture. Even for the world-class Voigt lab, it seemed like a very ambitious, almost quixotic goal. Fast forward to today, when Pivot Bio is preparing to launch its first commercial product and has been named to the Forbes Top 25 Most Innovative Ag Tech Startups of 2018. To me, it is an astonishing feat of perseverance and vision.

In recent years, many more technologists and entrepreneurs have followed Pivot’s lead, although Pivot will likely be the first to market with its microbial fertilizer product. Investors are also flocking to this sector. Ag-tech funding was $10.1 billion in 2017, a 29% year-over increase, according to AgFunder. Half of the top 20 deals exceeded $50 million.

Pivot Bio is in the midst of beta testing its microbes across the Corn Belt this summer. It is gathering in-season and harvest data to measure the impact of their  nitrogen-fixing microbes in corn fields across different soil types and conditions. So far, so good.

red tide

Fish washed up in an algal bloom in Captiva, Florida. This year 267 tons of marine life have washed up along Gulf Coast from the unrelenting “red tide”, according to The Guardian. Photograph: Cristobal Herrera/EPA

“We are hitting all of the milestones for launching the first sustainable nitrogen product for farmers ever,” said Karsten. Pivot Bio’s commercially available product for corn will be available in select states for the 2019 planting season. It can’t come soon enough: Florida’s current suffocating algal bloom is killing fish, turtles, and dolphins, not to mention discouraging tourism. It’s a sharp reminder that something needs to be done now.

The scientists at Pivot Bio are working toward slowing or even reversing air and water pollution caused by synthetic fertilizer. “Or maybe even nudge the nitrogen cycle itself,” Karsten adds. It’s a bold proposition, one that requires technical expertise and visionary thinking. But if anyone can take this challenge on, it’s the team that is tackling a decades-old challenge at its roots – literally.

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