The hidden helpers behind plant and soil health
It was only through the advent of microscopes that we began to understand the full breadth and potential of soil microbes, especially concerning the vital contributions of beneficial microbes. These tiny, microscopic bacteria and fungi work beneath the soil’s surface to provide plants with the nutrients and ideal conditions they need to thrive. Because of this, they are vital to the overall health of the soil, both on and beyond the farm.
Healthy soil is paramount in providing enough food, fuel, and fiber for the world’s growing population. In addition to finding new ways to help farmers protect soil health in and around their farms, we’re also working to more fully harness the power of microbes so farmers can use natural resources more efficiently.
Here are some of the many incredible feats microbes are capable of:
Maximizing resource efficiency
In order to accomplish more using less, we need to find ways to optimize the resources already available to us. Microbes are incredibly beneficial in that regard because they help crops access and use natural elements more efficiently.
Nitrogen is critical to plant growth; it is used to produce chlorophyll which is essential for photosynthesis. Generally, crops glean nitrogen from the soil around them. However, extreme weather conditions and some farming practices can allow nitrogen to escape from the ground before plants can use it. Microbes can help.
When microbes are present where organic matter is decomposing, for example following the clearing of cover crops or after harvest, they can capture the nitrogen released during the process. The microbes then transfer that saved nitrogen to growing plants through their roots
Phosphorous is another element essential to plant growth. It is not only a key component in photosynthesis, but it also stimulates root development, increases stalk and stem strength, and improves plants’ resistance to disease.
While there is plenty of phosphorus in soil, it cannot be dissolved by the plant directly for its benefit. Microbes help to break down the phosphorous present in soil, freeing it from the organic bonds keeping it there so that plants can use it to grow.
In addition to more efficiently stewarding nitrogen and phosphorous to where they’re most beneficial, microbes also channel other vital resources like water or nutrients directly to a plant’s root system. These vital exchanges help entire crops to more efficiently distribute and utilize resources, so that farmers can grow enough while actively conserving their time, energy and inputs.
Microbes help nourish crops, but they also work to protect growing plants from various insects and disease.
Some microbes work with plants to stop harmful fungi from crippling their growth. By creating a barrier around a plant’s roots, these microbes insulate and protect it from damaging, soil-bound fungi. Other microbes work their way up the plant to coat its leaves in a protective barrier that helps them withstand airborne pathogens.
There are some microbes that work as natural pesticides¹, addressing unwanted insects before they can even reach the plant. For example, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a commonly used, naturally occurring crop protection solution that produces crystal proteins that are completely safe for humans but disruptive to the digestive system of certain insects. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)—and other microbes like it—are particularly helpful for crops because they selectively address insect pressures without adversely affecting plants, beneficial organisms or our environment.
Supporting soil health
Nematodes are microscopic worms that eat other microorganisms within soil. When they eat other microbes, ammonium (NH4+) is released back into the soil. Plants can then break the ammonium down and access the beneficial nitrogen contained within it. In addition, as nematodes travel through the soil, they pick up and drop off microbes that attach to their exterior along the way, helping to evenly distribute them throughout the soil to maintain ideal conditions throughout a farmer’s fields.
Harnessing microbial powers for good
Because microbes are essential to supporting life both on and off the farm, we’re finding ways to help support their population in the soil. There are several environmental factors such as erosion, ponding, or flooding that can threaten microbe populations, which is why we’re always exploring new opportunities to improve how we farm in order to help maintain a proper balance in the soil.
With better seed varieties and crop protection solutions, farmers are increasingly adopting more sustainable agricultural practices like cover crops and conservation tillage, which both support microbe populations for healthier soil. In addition, we’ve also partnered with Ginkgo Bioworks to create a joint venture called Joyn Bio—a cutting-edge biotechnology company specializing in microorganisms—to develop customized microbe solutions that essentially act as probiotics to help crops thrive. We’re also developing technologies to place microbes directly onto seeds prior to planting so that individual plants have the protection and nutrients they need to thrive from day one. Because microbial seed coatings are as close to the plant as possible as it grows, they can help to optimize the natural resources already present in the soil and protect crops against pests and diseases.
To accelerate our research, we’ve fully automated and digitized our database helping researchers process up to 1,700 different bacteria a day to find new solutions, quicker. Though our library is growing, it currently stocks over 125,000 different strains—each with unique and individual traits that could help scientists develop the next big solution. Whether in the lab or in the field, we’re constantly finding ways to learn from the soil and the organisms within it to shape the sustainable future of agriculture
Glossary of terms
 Pesticide: Any substance or mixture of substances used to alter the life cycle of any pest.
They can be naturally derived or synthetically produced.
Herbicide: pesticide for weeds
Insecticide: pesticide for insects
Fungicide: pesticide for fungus
Miticide: pesticide for mites