Designer seeds could reduce pesticides on crops


A US startup hopes tapping into and tweaking a crop's microbiome will boost yield and make pesticides obsolete. Any Middleton reports.


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Seeds encased in 'good' bacteria, which bestows drought- and pest-resistance, may make scenes like this crop-dusted corn a thing of the past.
Andu Sacks / Getty Images

A US startup has developed designer seeds which could see fewer pesticides used on mass crops, including wheat, barley, corn, soy and beans.

Based in Massachusetts, the startup Indigo will launch its flagship products in 2016: a series of seeds wrapped in a careful concoction of good bacteria and fungi to provide protection and promote growth for plants in harsh conditions.

Scientists are becoming increasingly aware that plants, just like humans, benefit from their natural microbes – that is, the bacteria and fungi that live on and in leaves, roots and soil.

Just like our bodies, the good plant bacteria can help fight pests and disease, and increase a crop’s resilience.

That the plant microbiome is an important agricultural partner is not new. The effect of soil microbes was first described by German plant and microbial ecologist Lorenz Hiltner, who coined the term “rhizosphere” in 1904 to describe the zone of bacterial activity around legume roots.

Even the Romans modified the microbial populations of their crops by rotating them with clover, for instance, which promoted nitrogen-fixing bacteria as a natural fertiliser.

If successful, this could have positive repercussions in the fight against famine and food supply issues.

These days, seeds and plants tend to have less microbial diversity than their older counterparts. This could be due to our agricultural practices, including fungicide use, which strips out fungi and changes plant microbial composition over time.

So over the past two years, backed by $56 million, Indigo scientists have sequenced the genomes of 40,000 individual microbes. Using this database, the company uses mass testing to figure out the best possible organisms to help plants thrive in certain environments.

They claim the resulting seeds, coated in a perfect mixture of good bacteria and fungi, will make crops more resistant to pests, and conditions such as drought and high temperatures.

If successful, this could have positive repercussions in the fight against famine and food supply issues, as well as reducing the need for fertilisers and pesticides on mass crops – great news for bees and other pollinating insects.

The Indigo team has so far tested its products on corn, wheat, cotton, soy, barley, chickpeas and several types of bean in different environments over three continents.

CEO David Perry says results show a 10% improvement on yield or higher compared to untreated crops.

While larger companies such as Monsanto have developed similar treatments, Indigo’s approach is unique because it focuses on microbes that live within the plant tissue, rather than those present in the soil near the roots of the plant.

The company's success rate owes a lot to the reduced cost of sequencing over the past two years, and the speed and effectiveness of mass testing technology that continues to emerge.

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