Agents of Change

Microscopic Alliances: Microbes
Supporting the Environment

Plant scientists have gradually honed our understanding of
the intimate, millenia-long connection between beneficial
microbes and the plants they support. The relationship
between microbes and crops is helping us find new ways to
advance agriculture, all while actively contributing to healthy
ecosystems.

Supporting Microbes to Protect Ecosystems on and Beyond the Farm

Microbes have always been a part of our planet’s evolutionary history—even preceding the plants
they would come to benefit in agriculture. These microscopic wonders have existed here for 3.5
billion years. In fact, Earth’s first residents were cyanobacteria, which slowly converted a poisonous
atmosphere into the oxygen-rich air we breathe. Today, microbes are often prized for their role as
ecosystem recyclers, breaking down organic matter and transform it into beneficial resources to
help ensure the stability of ecosystems. Now with the tools and technologies to better understand
the contributions of microbes, we’re realizing new ways to support them in service of improving
agriculture and building a brighter future.

A COMMON COLLABORATOR

Microbes are ubiquitous—and that’s a good thing. To date, scientists have identified five kinds of
microbes: bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoa and viruses, all of which have their own unique and
beneficial characteristics. Microbes convert waste into usable materials, so they are found in a
wide variety of locations such as at the bottom of the oceans, in the clouds, inside active
volcanoes, within the soil and even inside our bodies.

AN AGRICULTURAL WORK FORCE

In addition to transforming matter, microbes also help plants to use natural resources such as water or nutrients more efficiently. These partnerships help maintain ideal nutrient and moisture levels in the soil. Because of this, microbes are integral partners on every farm to grow and protect crops without adversely impacting the environment. One of the best examples is Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.), a soil-borne bacterium with natural insecticidal properties. Inspired by it’s natural characteristics, scientists discovered how to introduce B.t. into corn, soybeans, cotton and eggplant through genetic modification to empower those crops to better protect themselves against insect pressure while reducing the amount of inputs needed from the farmer.

In addition to protecting crops against insect pests, microbes also help farmers shield their harvests against other threats. Serenade, for example, incorporates another type of bacteria (Bacillus subtilis) as the active ingredient to guard plants against harmful fungi.

Bacteria aren’t our only microbial partners. Scientists are also working with beneficial fungi—specifically microscopic fungal spores. As a key component of crop protection solutions such as BioAct™, these spores are helping plants withstand the nearly invisible threat of microscopic nematodes, which damage the root structures, disturb growth patterns and destroy up to 12% of a farmer’s crops. Today, we continue to explore new ways to work with and support billions of the various beneficial, microscopic farming partners

THE LIFE OF OUR SOIL

Beneath our feet is a hive of microbial activity, the presence of which is a key indicator of healthy soils. In fact, topsoil is the end result of microbes performing a variety of recycling tasks underground. After plants and other organisms die, their bodies decompose with help from bacteria and fungi. The outputs of this process become topsoil, minerals, and nutrients, which are all made available to other animals and plants. This circle of life plays out on and within our soils.

Another interesting microbial phenomenon occurs when bacteria and fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant roots to exchange nutrients and moisture, improving the plant’s ability to use natural resources more efficiently.

HARNESSING NUTRIENTS

Nitrogen is necessary for all plant and animal life. Although it comprises 80 percent of our atmosphere, the challenge is that plants and animals can’t use atmospheric nitrogen. Microbes can.

An entire category of plants, known as legumes, has a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria called rhizobia. Rhizobia are located within the root nodules of these plants, which include well known crops like soybeans, alfalfa, peas, and lentils. Together, they can “fix” nitrogen into a usable form.

Elsewhere in the soil, other microbes continue the nitrogen cycle by converting atmospheric nitrogen and nitrogen released from decomposing matter into usable forms for other species.

Phosphorus, another key plant nutrient, is often sequestered within other substances in the soil, rendering itself unusable. A category of soil bacteria and fungi, called phosphate-solubilizing microorganisms, can unlock it and make it available to help plants thrive.

Just as farmers can’t cultivate their crops without help from microbes and other beneficial organisms, microbes won’t be present to contribute unless we maintain healthy soil and sustainable farming practices. Agricultural practices such as conservation tillage and cover crops are some ways that farmers are encouraging healthy microbial populations in soil. Both practices leave crop residue on top of the soil, which attracts and supports thriving populations of microorganisms. They, in turn, convert that residue into nutrients and minerals. In addition to the nutritional benefits to a farmer’s crops, soil microbes also naturally capture and store carbon, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere.

To maximize the benefits, biotechnology initiatives such as Joyn Bio are engineering soil bacterium to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizers needed to grow crops. By harnessing and optimizing natural processes such as nutrient exchange, farmers have less need to treat their fields—ultimately creating conditions to dramatically decrease agriculture’s fossil fuel use and carbon emissions for a more sustainable future. Additionally, given that three percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions stems from the use and production of synthetic fertilizers, agriculture can have a big positive impact by harnessing the natural powers of soil microbes to help plants capture nitrogen from the environment and reduce the amount of fertilizer needed to grow stable crops.

INNOVATION INSPIRATION

Agriculture has always been interested in reusing waste, maintaining our air and soil, and fostering plant relationships. Microbes have been doing all three for more than three billion years. With better tools to understand and harness these positive potentials, we’re constantly working to develop new solutions to deepen the positive impact microorganisms have in the fields, so agriculture can do more to support people and our planet.

One of the most promising solutions is microbials, a category of agricultural products featuring live microbes. They can either be applied directly to seeds before planting or sprayed on the plant once it has started growing. One subcategory, known as biofertilizers, makes vital nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus more readily available to plants. By contrast, biostimulants can bolster a plant’s tolerance to climatic stresses such as drought or heat. These products package and deliver microbes where they can do the most good by functioning just as they do in nature. These are just two of the many ways we are tapping into the positive potential of agriculture’s microscopic partnerships—and we have countless more possibilities to explore as we move into the future.

THE NEXT THREE BILLION YEARS

Microbes and the products they make possible are already helping to make agriculture more efficient. To continue finding ways to grow enough food while protecting the environment and its resources, we need to continually innovate to make our best solutions even better. As we continue exploring the invisible world all around us, the possibilities for microbes to improve how we farm are endless. There’s no way to know what agriculture will look like in the future, but one thing is certain: microbes and their many benefits will help us develop the tools and technologies that can improve countless lives around the globe.

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