The future of agricultural biologics

Posted on March 06, 2017

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Improving crop production
Demand for agricultural products continues to grow as the world’s population increases. At the same time, crop productivity can be seriously affected by stresses such as drought, pests and weeds. Fertilizers and pesticides play a part in overcoming these obstacles, but crop biologics have an increasing role in the success of the agriculture industry.

The Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) is working with academic researchers and biotech companies to develop and commercialize a new generation of crop biologics, providing an environmentally sustainable solution to increasing crop production by improving seed viability, plant health and crop yield. Located in the centre of Canadian agriculture, SRC offers world-class fermentation facilities and contract services that are accelerating the commercialization of this next generation of crop biologics.

In the context of improving global food security, SRC Vice-President of Strategic Initiatives Phillip Stephan feels “it’s quite exciting for us to enable process optimization, scale-up, and production of these crop biologics that hold such promise and potential impact for Saskatchewan crop producers and the global markets they serve.”   

Crop biologics
Stephan says “recent advances in metagenomics and bioprospecting technologies are creating tremendous opportunities to increase food production and promote global food security through the discovery, development, and commercialization of new crop biologics."

Crop biologics research focuses on beneficial microbes, their symbiotic relationships with plants and how those relationships help plants thrive under a range of environmental stresses. Like the good bacteria that lives in your gut and helps your body’s digestion and metabolism, the right microbes can improve plant health by fighting disease, increasing nutrient absorption and improving water use efficiency.

Microbes called endophytes can work inside a plant’s cells to augment the plant’s metabolism and contribute to overall health. Endophytes are receptive to what is going on outside of the plant, assisting it to cope with external stressors such as disease, pests and climate irregularities such as drought, by providing good enzymes to balance the plant’s defense or resistance to these stressors.

Scientists, like the University of Saskatchewan’s Vladimir Vujanovic, have identified various naturally occurring microbes that can be used to improve plant health when introduced to the plant’s microbiome, an ecological community of microorganisms. These microbes were identified through bioprospecting of agricultural crops and utilized in recent research and development. Microbes showing positive effects in initial studies are then applied to plant seeds, soil, roots or leaves to validate their impact on the plant productivity.

7.4 billion and growing
According to the United Nations, the world population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Water and food resources are going to be under serious pressure as the world’s global population continues to climb. The challenges of water and food security are further aggravated by the impacts of climate change and combine to put a lot of strain on the agriculture sector.

Indigo, a Massachusetts based company focused on harnessing nature to help growers sustainably feed the planet, believes that biologics represent a major breakthrough. President, CEO and Director of Indigo, David Perry states that “agricultural productivity is a fundamental part of the solution, since worldwide agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all water consumption. To avoid a potential water gap, we as an industry need to invest in innovations that make our crops more resilient to various climate conditions, thus increasing water use efficiency. We must feed more people with less water.” 

Perry and his team at Indigo focus on microbes that have evolved in conjunction with plants over millions of years to optimize their health and maximize their productivity. The resulting products complement a plant’s natural processes to improve strength across each stage of plant development, while boosting crop yields.

What does the future hold?
“The next step is to determine if microbes can be produced on a scale that will help Canadian farmers,” says the University of Saskatchewan’s Vujanovic. “A new generation of microbial inoculants which consist of fungal and bacterial partners attached to a plant’s seed and root, are ground-breaking discoveries for innovation and biotechnology. These discoveries will benefit pulses, soybean and canola crops in a variety of ways, improving yield for sustaining and improving agricultural production under the increasing stresses of climate change.”

Indigo’s Vice-President of Bioprocess Development and Manufacturing David Easson says they want to ”improve plant health and performance by coating seeds with beneficial microbes prior to seeding. We partner with teams like the Saskatchewan Research Council, the National Research Council and the University of Saskatchewan to identify the right microbes to meet the needs of the growers. We look forward to continue working with Canadian experts so together we can explore how we maximize the promise of this new technology on the Canadian prairies.”

With considerable investments being made by small and large companies alike, a new generation of crop biologics is beginning to emerge to bring these technologies to farms across Saskatchewan, Canada and the world.       

This article first appeared in Biotechnology Focus. Republished with permission.

Doré Collett, SRC