Enriching the Microbiome
BioConsortia Identifies and Develops Teams of Microbes that Help Boost Crops’ Yield and Survival
BioConsortia celebrated its first anniversary in March. The innovative agricultural biotech company focuses on the discovery and development of beneficial microbial consortia for improving plant traits and increasing crop yields. Following a funding of $15 million in March 2014, BioConsortia built state-of-the-art R&D laboratories and brought together a team of biological scientists and agricultural industry executives to further develop its Advanced Microbial Selection (AMS) technology. CHEManager International asked CEO Dr. Marcus Meadows-Smith about his strategy to further develop the company and its innovative technologies.
CHEManager International: March marked the one-year anniversary of BioConsortia as the parent company to New Zealand-based subsidiary, BioDiscovery. What have been the most important milestones BioConsortia has reached during the past year?
M. Meadows-Smith: In brief: We completed first-year field trials in corn and wheat with good results and a high degree of consistency, and are expanding on these initial trials in 2015. We built state-of-the-art R&D laboratories and offices in Davis, California. We hired an experienced team of top ag industry executives and accomplished biological scientists. And we raised $15 million Series B from two long-term sophisticated investors, Khosla Ventures and Otter Capital, to fund our activities and global expansion.
The US organization complements the R&D team and work in New Zealand, where the breakthrough conception of the AMS process was made in 2009. What is AMS and how does it work?
M. Meadows-Smith: Advanced Microbial Selection – AMS – is the identification and isolation of strong microbial consortia that are responsible for the expression of targeted traits in plants. AMS is an iterative process of microbe capture and phenotypic selection, which uses the idea of ‘directed selection’ to drive a shift in crops’ trait performance toward improved yields and survival. Plants naturally accumulate microbes when planted in soil and may attract organisms with a multitude of effects.
AMS enriches this microbiome to identify consortia of the most beneficial microbes. Plants expressing a superior phenotype are chosen and the associated microbes are isolated and identified.
You have done field trials on corn and wheat in the US. What are the results of these tests?
M. Meadows-Smith: Our 2014 testing program consisted of seed treatment trials in corn and wheat across a range of sites in the Midwest. Corn leads were tested in combination with standard chemistry on two different hybrids, resulting in yield enhancement with commendable consistency. Two consortia were tested on wheat in one location, giving double-digit yield increases. The tested consortia were isolated from an AMS process run on corn seed in New Zealand.
Are you developing your process for other plants or crops, and other geographies, too?
M. Meadows-Smith: Yes, the AMS process is applicable to many crops and many traits. Our current focus lies around corn, wheat, soybean, leafy vegetables, tomatoes and pasture — with trials planned in the US, New Zealand, Europe and Latin America.
What topics is your R&D team currently focusing on, and what are your plans to expand your portfolio?
M. Meadows-Smith: Current R&D research is focused on developing consortia to enhance fertilizer use efficiency, general growth and abiotic stress tolerance, such as cold-and-wet and drought resistance. We plan to pursue targets for metabolite expression and biotic resistance in collaboration with others or after our own expansion in the future. For example, corn rootworm is an obvious target in the market, and we believe microbes can provide resistance against this pest.
Given the serious global issues of population growth, malnutrition, climate volatility, and dwindling exploitable resources, do you think that microbial consortia products that enhance crop productivity will be able to make a significant impact on these issues?
M. Meadows-Smith: Yes, the products we are developing are designed to help in these critical areas: to further increase yields in high-production agriculture and the major row crops; help plants tolerate abiotic stress brought about by climate volatility, such as drought or cold and wet spring weather at planting time; and improve use of resources, land and environment with fertilizer use efficiency products.
What is your expectation for the market growth potential of these products?
M. Meadows-Smith: The markets for microbial biopesticides and biostimulants are $2 billion and $1 billion respectively; both have been growing at 10%-15% for the past five years. We believe the entry of companies such as Bayer, Monsanto and BASF will only accelerate grower adoption and market growth.
Our products fit into these two fast-growing markets, but also address an unmet need for microbials that have been specifically developed to improve plant traits and increase crop yields. As such, we see our products becoming adopted in the $50 billion seeds and $160 billion fertilizer businesses, as well as the $50 billion crop protection and $2.5 billion specialty fertilizer markets.
There is some consumer concern about agricultural chemistry products such as pesticides, even if they contain the word “bio.” What is your response to such concerns?
M. Meadows-Smith: Our products are natural probiotics for plants with a scientific rigor that has gone into their discovery and development to ensure they are safe for use in agriculture. The products are produced in a similar way to yogurt and beer, and will have undergone a rigorous series of tests, defined by the Environmental Protection Agency prior to launch. Microbials are used on organic food production and favored by consumers and environmental groups, though our focus is to improve mainstream, high-production agriculture with products that increase yield and are safe for the environment.
You have established collaborations and partnerships with leading international seed/trait, fertilizer, and crop protection companies. Can you just name a few, and what their purpose is?
M. Meadows-Smith: We now have a number of greenhouse, field trials and collaborations underway with leading seed/trait and crop protection companies looking at combinations of their seed with our microbes, looking at improved tolerance to abiotic stress and increased yield. We are also looking at the positive impact of our microbes on non-core crops. All these are covered by confidentiality agreements at this stage. The only collaborations that we have announced is with Ballance Agri-Nutrients, the largest fertilizer company in New Zealand, to jointly develop a microbial product for pasture grass.