When you’re in a fight, it helps to know who (and where) your friends are.
That is the guiding principle behind a new technology that identifies the traits of compatible organisms and then forms them into partnerships, called consortia, to protect crops.
The ultimate objective for using consortia is to enhance fertilizer efficiency, intrinsic growth yields, crop yields and beneficial plant rates, all of which contribute to higher profits for the grower. They also contribute to getting the attributes in raw fruits and vegetables that make them more desirable to fresh-cut processors, such as plant vigor, higher sugars and overall health.
The next steps in the effort to bring this technology to growers are being taken by BioConsortia, the parent company of BioDiscovery New Zealand, the firm that discovered a method for rapidly identifying microbes that form cooperating consortia.
Marcus Meadows-Smith, former CEO of biopesticides company AgraQuest (now part of Bayer CropScience) is now the CEO of BioConsortia. In August, the company opened its new headquarters and R&D laboratories in Davis, California. The location puts BioConsortia near a number of other crop protection and biotechnology firms and the University of California, Davis.
Consortia are an already-existing part of nature, Meadows-Smith said.
Microbes are in every soil. When a farmer plants seed, microbes associate with it. Often they are beneficial — they help the plant to grow and get something back from the plant. Others are pathogenic and many are neutral. What we look to do is exploit the beneficial effects,” he said.
Trying to find the most beneficial matches of microbes is a task that is can be overwhelming for conventional research and development methods, Meadows-Smith said. The normal procedure would have meant workers sifting through tens of thousands of microbes and testing them one by one for their combinations.
As an alternative, BioConsortia places the plants in growth chambers and in a variety of natural and synthetic soils, and allows the plants to select the microbes.
“That was absolutely the enormous breakthrough,” Meadows-Smith said. “We keep all of the other variables equal. We use the same seed and the same watering regime.”
The plants with the most desirable phenotypes are selected, and their microbes are isolated. From there, using a proprietary technology, the best microbial combination (consortium) is selected.
Each soil has its own microbial community, depending on the type of soil and the crops it produces. In nature, these soils attract a variety of microbes, including those that are harmful to the plant. The BioConsortia R and D platform starts with collection of soil samples from a diverse range of areas, from which microbes are selected. The microbes are classified as superior, neutral or pathogenic. Only the microbes with the desired qualities are selected to go forward and become part of a seed treatment or other product.
After the best microbes are selected, researchers begin to identify the best combinations (consortia), using their new R and D model that is driven by DNA sequencing.
“It’s a very rapid process, especially when compared to the conventional model of testing individual microbes one by one from the library,” Meadows-Smith said. “We can look through the full selection of 100,000 microbes in a year. With the conventional method, we would need three to four years with the same amount of people. Because it is a very fast process, we can get on to specific solutions.”
BioConsortia will partner with fertilizer, seed/traits and crop protection companies to bring products based on the new technology to growers. Field trials with growers, universities, independent contractors and distributors are planned in the U.S. and Europe in 2015. Field trials are already underway in New Zealand.
The first round of solutions are anticipated in the form of liquid seed treatments (for corn, wheat, rice and other row crops), granules for pasture and a drench for high-value fruit and vegetable crops, which may be applied as a wettable powder.
The drench application will be a solution customized for the needs of fruit and vegetable growers, Meadows-Smith said.
“Fruits and vegetables usually get a hand-me-down from row crops. What we’ve found is our process is so fast and efficient that we can actually run trials that are crop-specific to optimize and find the best consortia for an individual crop,” he said.
Products now in research and development include those that enhance the effects of fertilizer, provide growth improvement and improve plant traits such as abiotic tolerance, biotic resistance to diseases and pests and enhanced expression of antioxidants, color or sugar. At present, work on sugar content is planned for sugar beet and sugarcane, but Meadows-Smith said the R and D model could also work with sweet corn.
In 2015, trials are scheduled for tomatoes and leafy greens. These crops will be evaluated for yield increase, reduced fertilizer inputs and increased plant quality. Researchers are also looking at ways to get two crops in one season in warmer climates (such as winter-fruiting and summer-fruiting tomatoes).
There is no research yet for tree fruit, but that work may be launched in 2015. Meadows-Smith said some of the microbial consortia hold promise in associating with root systems as a mycorrhizal product to help increase fruit size and enhance fertilizer efficiency.
Any products using consortia would not be biopesticides, but products that impact yield, which means they should have a quicker registration, Meadows-Smith said. The first products using BioConsortia technology may hit the market by 2017.