Mixed Communities of Microbes Bring Sustainability to Farming
January 8th, 2017
Offered by Specialty Chemicals magazine
Dr Margaret Bywater-Ekegärd, Co-founder and Executive Vice President, Technology and Innovation, at Inocucor Technologies Inc, tells Speciality Chemicals Magazine about their development of microbial products.
In 1938, Dr Charles E Kellogg, a pioneer in soil science, summed up the importance of soil, “Essentially, all life depends upon the soil. There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”
Studies show that long-term use of inorganic fertilizers and synthetic products manufactured using fossil fuels is depleting soils of nutrients and contaminating groundwater. In some cases, common agricultural practices and dependence on inputs like fertilizers and herbicides may result in plateaued and declining crop yields. Findings such as these encouraged Inocucor to investigate the potential impact of biological products on the use of inorganic and synthetic chemicals and, in 2007, Inocucor started studying biologicals and their applications for agriculture with a sense of urgency. They believed that new approaches were needed if agriculture was going to meet the challenge of producing food and fuel for the world’s growing population.
As explained by Dr Margaret Bywater-Ekegärd, Co-founder and Executive Vice President, Technology and Innovation, at Inocucor Technologies Inc, “We knew that each gram of soil in a healthy ecosystem contains hundreds of millions of beneficial microbes, and that soils from different habitats contain a fungi/bacteria balance appropriate to that location”.
Dr Bywater-Ekegärd said that a holistic approach dominated their reasoning: “If microbes helped plants survive on earth, could they be harnessed into powerful soil and plant amendments? We hypothesized the resulting crop inputs could work in two ways for farmers, both as protectants that help plants fight stress from the environment, chemicals and infection, and by giving plants better access to nutrients.”
At the time, many researchers in agricultural bioscience were using a simplified approach to study the action of one bacterium at a time, such as its ability to help plants fight disease. However, Inocucor realised that the community of microorganisms that live in symbiotic accord with plants by providing mutual benefits, also embraced the surrounding geography, the environment and climate.
Therefore, Inocucor’s scientists focused on the emerging science of microbial consortia – that is, combinations of bacteria, yeasts and moulds. “The results of our field trials show that defined, mixed communities of microbes do, in fact, create powerful bio-stimulation effects that enable plants to reach their full growth or yield potential,“ explained Dr Bywater-Ekegärd Inocucor’s scientists choose individual strains based on their compatibility with one another, their ability to convert organic debris to carbohydrates for plant biomass and to adapt to different environmental conditions. When fermented together, these microbes act synergistically as a ‘biological factory,’ producing a combination of organic substances that improve plant vigour, enhance crop yields and create healthier, more resilient soils. They arrived at a group of 11 microbial strains that appeared to hold the most promise in enhancing crop yield in the field.
Microbes produce unique molecules that act to metabolize their food and protect themselves from threats. The metabolic activities observed in a laboratory can often vary when the same microbes are applied to plants or soil. Translating from laboratory bench to a sustainable field-to-yield effect is crucial to consistently deliver results to the farmer or grower.
As in any successful community, it is crucial that microbes get along with each other – that they do not compete with or kill other members of the consortium when they are fermented together. Further, the microbes must not promote excessive growth of any other live component that may dominate the final product and possibly decrease the shelf life of the product.
In producing microbial consortia for field use, consistent quality must be maintained by subjecting each production batch to microbial, chemical and bio-functional analysis so that every batch produces the same stimulatory effects.
Inocucor’s growing understanding of how microbes communicate and interact grew out of a long-term collaboration with Dr Donald L Smith and his researchers at McGill University’s Department of Plant Science. Dr Smith and Dr Bywater-Ekegärd published the first results of this collaboration in 2015.
Such collaborations are essential to Inocucor’s product development and testing efforts. In addition to collaborations with McGill, and other academic partnerships with Clemson University and the University of Georgia for product development and field-testing, they have a product co-development agreement with Axter Agrosciences, Inc of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Québec. They also work with several crop input producers to combine biological formulations with existing macro/micro nutrient packages that deliver enhanced yields to farmers.
In November 2015, Inocucor received their first US patent (US9175258) for their consortia and unique microbial products. This initial patent anchors several follow-on patent families for Inocucor in bio-stimulation and bio-control.
Their first product, Synergro, is registered in 22 US states and is used by many organic and conventional growers of high-value produce in several geographic regions. Their second-generation bio-stimulation product, Synergro-Free, is being field-tested in the US and Canada on row crops such as corn, soybean, wheat, cotton and canola.
“Now we know that our initial instincts about the importance of microbial science for agriculture were correct,” Dr Bywater-Ekegärd affirmed. “Our next challenges include development of biological formulations that solve economically devastating diseases in crops such as strawberries, tomatoes and potatoes. Our goal remains the same: To continue development of sustainable microbial formulations that improve crop yields, shorten growing periods, and create healthier, more resilient soils for farmers around the world.”