And it's all thanks to a synthetic microbe
scientists may create self-fertilizing crops
Credit: Photo by Martin Barraud via Getty Images

Legumes are a self-sufficient crop when it comes to fertilization. Unlike most other large crops, legume plants (like peanuts, soybeans, peas, and beans) support the growth of microbes known as nitrogen-fixers. These microbes convert nitrogen in soil into ammonia, a necessary component in photosynthesis. Since major crops like corn, rice, and wheat don’t naturally support nitrogen-fixers in growth, farmers rely on artificial fertilizer, a deeply environmentally unsustainable product. Fortunately, a synthetic biology company has committed to attempt to wean all crops from fertilizer-based growth.

Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based company, is working to synthetically engineer nitrogen-fixing microbes that can live on any plant, and (like legumes) produce their own fertilizer, effectively eradicating the fossil fuel-reliant artificial fertilizers.

Earlier this year Bloomberg produced a video describing how Ginkgo modifies genes in microbes to generate scent compounds and successfully alters yeast genes to smell like peach and rose. The compounds were extracted and sold to Ginkgo’s clients in the food and perfume industries.

On a larger scale, Ginkgo is working towards a goal of using DNA to grow goods instead of manufacturing them in factories generated on important planetary resources.

“Can you program biology to make stuff?” asks Jason Kelly, co-founder of Ginkgo Bioworks in the Bloomberg video. “Yes, because DNA is code.”

Kelly is referring to his larger plans for Ginkgo, among them generating these designer microbes for large crops. To kickstart this program, Ginkgo recently began a merger with Bayer, a German-based multinational pharmaceutics company.

“We fundamentally know that microbes will provide benefits to plants that chemicals cannot,” Mike Miille, head of biologics for Bayer Crop Science, told Wired. Miille went on to describe that nitrogen-fixers’ potential power has been limited by natural biology and evolution. “We’re trying to change that.”

As Kelly explains to Bloomberg, DNA is a type of digital code, which scientists have the ability to read and write through DNA sequencing and synthesis respectively. “If you can read and write code, you can program… the applications for this are sort of endless,” Kelly says.

This work is exciting, but achievement of the synthesized nitrogen-fixers project and a subsequent successful application of the microbes onto the world’s crops has a ways to go. In the meantime, choosing to implement more legumes into your daily routine is a good way to reduce our collective reliance on fertilizers.

However, employees at the still-unnamed resulting new company of the Ginkgo-Bayer merger has already begun work on the project. According to Wired, Bayer’s science team is currently putting together a group of various types of nitrogen-fixing microbes, which the team at Ginkgo can begin sequencing hopefully as soon as next month.