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In a single teaspoon of healthy soil, there are more microbes — tiny organisms that help keep soil nutritious for plants — than there are people on Earth.

Although these microbes are just 0.5% of total soil mass, they serve a vital purpose. These algae, archaea, bacteria, nematodes, protozoa and yeasts process organic matter in soil, turning it into a rich, dark material capable of supporting plant life.

Scientists at universities and startups are looking at ways to harness the power of those microbes to improve soil health and reduce farming’s environmental impact.

“These microbes can improve the environmental footprint of agriculture and increase yields,” said Matthew Wallenstein, professor of soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University. “That’s a win-win for the farmer and the environment.

Chemical Signaling

Six years ago, Wallenstein launched a startup, Growcentia, that develops microbe formulas for farmers. Microbes communicate directly with plants through chemical signaling. They can help determine when a plant is supposed to flower and how they respond to drought or pathogens. Growcentia’s scientists use DNA sequencing to understand a microbe’s genetic code and how it interacts with plants.

“Using a combination of sequencing and measurements of microbial functions, we can figure out what’s happening in soil and how microbes influence plant health and yield,” Wallenstein said.

Growcentia scientists combine natural microbes from a diverse collection of soils, screening for groupings with unique functions that solve grower challenges. They further improve these groupings over multiple generations, essentially by breeding them for specific characteristics.

By creating the right combination of microbes, scientists are able to make more resilient, efficient cropping systems. Growcentia’s first commercially available microbe product MAMMOTH-PTM is a consortium of soil bacteria that helps release phosphorus, a vital plant nutrient, naturally occurring in the soil. Thousands of growers across the country have already adopted it, typically seeing yield increases of 15% — clearly visible to the naked eye.

“There is huge potential for these biological solutions. They can make farming more efficient and sustainable,” Wallenstein said.

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Reduced Environmental Impact

Other microbe-focused companies are using gene editing to develop microbes that can provide the plant with the nitrogen it needs to flourish.

Gene-edited microbes can provide farmers with a new, innovative tool to reduce environmental impacts while nourishing crops.

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