The promise of biologicals for crop protection and plant health are areas of growing interest for a range of companies, from established chemical giants to startups. BioConsortia has been charting a new course in the biological discovery area, with new tech pioneered by founder Marcus Meadows-Smith.
Meadows-Smith, former CEO of AgraQuest, the biological crop protection firm acquired by Bayer CropScience for nearly $500 million, is working with another tool for discovery of biological products — BioConsortia’s Advanced Microbial Selection. “We started off five years ago when we set up the company using the elegant advanced microbial selection research and development platform,” Meadows-Smith recalls. “We’ve strengthened that technology with the addition of genomic microbiome analysis and tagging of microbes.”
BIOLOGICAL PIONEER: Marcus Meadows-Smith, founder of BioConsortia, has a track record bringing new kinds of crop protection products to market. The company has several in review at the U.S. EPA, with new tools to be available as early as 2021.
Advanced Microbial Selection works to identify the positive microbes in the soil that help top-yielding plants thrive by creating a healthier environment — either by stopping fungus and disease, enabling better nutrient use or stopping nematodes. Adding the genomic tech allows BioConsortia researchers to better see which microbes are working hardest at their key task. “We are able to see how robustly they colonize in the plant and work in all different crops,” Meadows-Smith says.
The work also looks at how those microbes perform under a range of crops, soils, pH levels and temperatures. Meadows-Smith acknowledges that biological products have faced criticism in the past because they can be inconsistent performers. “If a microbe doesn’t work at 50 [degrees F] or in soil pH 5, that can be a problem,” he says.
Over the past five years, the company has been testing microbes that it has identified provide different benefits. He explains that the first three years of the five-year company history has been devoted to refining the platform and adding levels of insight and research to “make it more powerful.”
The next step was testing to prove the performance of the biofungicides, nematicides, and nutrient utilization tools identified through the selection process. “We have two years of field trial data, and we’re moving those products into registration,” he says. The aim is to have a biostimulant product available to market by 2021, and biopesticides available by 2022.
Working with EPA
The company recently announced it was adding a wheat seed treatment to the growing list of biological products in the registration phase with the U.S. EPA.
The seed treatment comes from BioConsortia’s biostimulant pipeline. The product has been tested in 20 field trials over the past two years, showing consistent yield increases over a range of conditions. The new product shows what the company claims is “robust spore-forming bacteria” compatible with commercially available chemical seed treatments.
Meadows-Smith notes that the 2019 field trials confirmed what the company had learned in greenhouse and prior-year field trials: “Our products increase yield on top of best agronomic practice in both low- and high-yielding growing conditions, which is not always the case with microbial products.”
The microbe has shown it can colonize the wheat root system in a range of soils, fertility and environmental conditions. The product — using strong root colonization — helps the plant with nutrient acquisition.
When thinking about biologicals, the approaches are different from more conventional products. The biological can work to colonize a plant and help with nutrients; or colonize the plant and block fungi or other pests from taking hold; or create an environment around the plant that can disrupt the life pattern of a key pest — say, nematodes.
As for creating those helpful biologicals, there’s some stress involved. Meadows-Smith explains that in the development for the wheat seed treatment, plants are subjected to stresses and the presence of crop disease like fusarium and pythium, with those that perform the best selected for further study. The plants are assayed for the presence of the microbes, and researchers look for those plants that are more colonized by the microbe.
“We’ll move forward with the plant microbiome that showed the healthiest plants under the stress situation,” he says. “We will retest those individual microbes on various plants and see how they colonize. We’ll only go to field trials if they colonize in the wheat and show an improvement in plant phenotype in the greenhouse. The plant has chosen the microbe.”
Moving to market
But who will sell these products? Meadows-Smith says the company’s model is to focus on research and development. “We are in the process of having our products marketed through potential partners including crop protection, seed and fertilizer companies,” he says. “We’re seeing excitement in the market from crop protection and fertilizer companies.”
Fertilizer companies are interested, Meadows-Smith says, because they want products that can help boost use of nutrients and reduce the threat of runoff and off-target movement.
Biologicals are the next big thing in crop protection, and BioConsortia is on its way to bringing a range of new fungicides, nematicides and plant nutrient efficiency products in the next few years. You can learn more at bioconsortia.com.