Over the past several years, scientists have realised that the human microbiome — the catch-all term for the micro-organisms living inside us and on our skin — plays a key role in maintaining health. Our microbes, it turns out, can impact everything from weight to whether a person gets diabetes or cancer.
It’s not just humans that rely on a healthy microbiome. Plants do too — and just as researchers have started coming up with treatments to heal the human microbiome, companies are now doing the same for plants. By adding probiotics to crops, the thinking goes, farmers can look forward to better yields without using any pesticides or GMOs.
A startup called Indigo is now offering microbe-enhanced crops to farmers. First up: cotton coated with a microbe that can improve yield in drought conditions. Indigo started selling to customers during the spring as they were planting cotton seed; the product is now planted on over 50,000 acres in Texas and four surrounding states.
In earlier trials, coated seeds improved yields by 10% compared to uncoated seeds. Indigo doesn’t yet know if that’s the case for the seeds planted in the spring. But if it is, it’s a potentially big deal in the numerous states that have struggled with drought in recent years.
“Microbes have evolved for hundreds of millions of years with plants. That worked until the advent of agricultural chemicals — pesticides, herbicides, fungicides. It’s not that those technologies were bad, but we didn’t understand we were also killing off the beneficial stuff,” says Indigo CEO David Perry.
Indigo identifies beneficial microbes and adds them to the plants in the hopes that crops will have higher yields and become more resistant to disease.
In order to find those microbes, the company does DNA sequencing for thousands of plant samples from all over the world. Then it creates and runs algorithms to predict which microbes will work best under various conditions.
This wouldn’t have been possible even two or three years ago because sequencing was so expensive. But costs are dropping quickly, which is good news for Indigo’s future products.
Indigo plans to test microbes that target numerous problems, including nutrient stress, insect infestations, and excess salt in the soil. Drought-resistant microbes came first since water stress is such a huge problem and existing tools don’t help much.
“There’s no chemical you can spray on a plant to have it perform better when it doesn’t have enough water,” says Perry.
There’s no set price for Indigo’s products; farmers pay a third of the additional value created by the microbe-coated seeds (plus a small upfront cost for seeds). So if Indigo Cotton boosts yield by 10%, the company wants a third of that. The price structure is indicative of the company’s faith that its products will actually do what they’re intended to do.
“Someday we’ll look back and say ‘Thank God we don’t have to put pesticides on thousands of acres anymore,'” says Perry. “But that will be in 20 or 30 years.”
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