Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and other billionaires are betting on a bacteria that could change the way we grow food

Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesBill Gates speaking at an event in Washington, 2014.
  • An energy startup called Pivot Bio raised $US70 million for its genetically modified bacteria, which help cut down on the use of nitrogen fertiliser.
  • In addition to using up energy and polluting rivers and streams, nitrogen fertiliser releases a greenhouse gas that’s 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • With its latest round of funding, Pivot Bio plans to introduce a product for US corn farmers, before moving on to other crops like wheat and rice.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria may not sound like the most alluring topic, but it’s capturing the attention of the world’s most influential billionaires, who see it as a concrete way to help save the planet.

If the technology pans out, this long-dormant bacteria could alter the future of energy and agriculture by reducing environmental pollution, protecting the world’s marine ecosystem, lowering production costs for farmers, and conserving energy usage.

In September, a group of billionaire investors, including Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Michael Bloomberg, set aside $US1 billion to invest in nine energy startups. The investments are part of a fund called Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), which provides companies with “patient capital,” or money that doesn’t require a return on investment for up to 20 years. This gives scientists and engineers time to refine their transformative energy technologies.

In its latest round of funding, California-based startup Pivot Bio raised $US70 million for its genetically modified bacteria, with the majority of funds coming from BEV.

Farmers are using too much fertiliser

Before Pivot Bio set out to develop a product, it identified a major problem in the agriculture industry: Farmers are using too much fertiliser.

“A plant is kind of like a human. As its grows up, it has growth spurts,” said Karsten Temme, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “In the middle of the [growing] season, the plant is a teenager – you need to give it nutrients as fast as you can because that’s when it’s growing the quickest.”

But farmers can’t access the crops at that time, because the plants have grown too big. Driving a tractor through the field would run them all over. So, they have taken to adding nitrogen fertiliser in the off-season, leaving it exposed for an extended period of time.

That fertiliser then releases nitrous oxide, a type of greenhouse gas that’s 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The gas also runs into rivers and streams, eating up the oxygen in the water so that no marine animals can survive. It’s also toxic for humans: Coming into contact with the infested water can cause painful rashes, and ingesting it can lead to liver or kidney damage.

Pivot Bio has discovered a bacteria that cuts down on the need for hazardous fertiliser. According to Temme, the bacteria has been hiding in the environment for the last century, but the use of fertilisers has rendered them inactive. “We’ve rediscovered a lost part of the microbiome,” he said.

How the technology works

By genetically modifying the bacteria, Pivot Bio helps to activate them in the presence of nitrogen fertiliser. Farmers can then spray the bacteria in liquid form onto the seed itself.

“As soon as that seed germinates and the first roots form, our microbes can latch on to that root and cover it like a glove,” said Temme. This allows the bacteria to provide food to the plant on a daily basis, eliminating the need for excess fertiliser.

But there’s one more obstacle: Farmers aren’t quite used to the new technology.

To get over this hump, Pivot Bio has proposed a bargain. Farmers can use the same methods they’re accustomed to – spraying crops with fertilisers and insecticides from a tank on their tractor – in exchange for adding the genetically modified bacteria to the tank.

It’s a win for farmers, who don’t have to spend as much money on fertiliser, and an even bigger win for the environment. Temme said that fertiliser production eats up around 3-4% of the world’s energy, and the production process alone can release harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

While the challenge is lofty, Pivot Bio has a clear strategy in place. “Our first commitment is to bring a product into the marketplace for US corn farmers,” said Temme. The product – which the company is calling “Proven” – stems from both real-life and academic tests, which showed that the bacteria could provide up to a quarter of the nitrogen needed for the plant to grow.

After their first product hits the market, Pivot Bio will move on to other crops like rice and wheat. Together, corn, wheat, and rice consume about half of the world’s nitrogen, said Temme.

Though Pivot Bio is not the only company working with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, a vote of confidence from billionaires like Bezos and Gates is bound to help.

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