A genetic engineering startup has developed a technology with the power to transform agriculture: a self-fertilizing plant. To understand why this is such a big deal, let's take a step back. Fertilizer is a big part of growing our food. And while fertilizer replenishes the soil with all kinds of nutrients plants need to thrive, the most important compound that fertilizer provides – and the most difficult to cultivate – is nitrogen, or nitrate.
Before the industrial revolution, farmers relied on compost and crop rotation to cycle the much-needed element back into the soil. But when farms evolved from small, biodiverse ranches to huge monocrops, the need for nitrogen fertilizer increased, and the circumstances that naturally created that nitrogen decreased. So, scientists began manufacturing it themselves.
The US fertilizer industry increasingly relies on natural gas extracted by fracking—the process of extracting gas from rock formations by injecting them with high-pressure water spiked with chemicals. This in itself is harmful to the environment, but it doesn't stop there. Excess nitrogen from crops seeps into streams and rivers, feeding a massive annual algae bloom that blots out sea life, while emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon, add to climate change. Additionally, the overuse of the fertilizer causes the destruction of organic matter in soil, increasing the demand for fertilizer and trapping farmers in a vicious cycle.
On top of that, the U.S. is the number one consumer of nitrogen fertilizer. With just five percent of the world’s population, we consume about 12 percent of global nitrogen-fertilizer production. And corn—which according to the USDA “requires the most nitrogen per acre” of any crop—remains at the center of our agriculture, covering 30 percent of farmland each year.
So back to this self-fertilizing plant. If we could do away with the need for these destructive fossil fuel-based fertilizer, the environment would be in much better shape. And that's exactly what the startup has in mind.
“The idea is that it would be able to let you reduce–and maybe ultimately replace–synthetic nitrogen fertilizer,” Jason Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Gingko Bioworks – the company behind the unnamed startup – told Fast Company.
The startup will do this by harnessing microbes that live on a few crops, including beans and peanuts, that allow the plants to fertilize themselves and bring the same capability to plants that can’t – in particular corn, wheat, and rice, which together make up more than 55 percent of fertilizer use.
“Microbes that are living in the roots of the peanut plant essentially run the exact same nitrogen to ammonia gas conversion [as a chemical plant] but they do it right there in the roots–so they make the fertilizer much more efficiently, and just for the plant,” Kelly said. “Of course, you don’t need that big chemical plant, you don’t need that energy use if you have the microbe doing it right there on the spot.”
Gingko Bioworks has partnered with Bayer to make these self-fertilizing plants. Bayer has an "extensive collection of microbes" that “play well” with particular crops, according to Fast Company. Gingko Bioworks will bring those plants into the lab, print new DNA and design new microbes that will fix nitrogen on crops like corn.
The plants will eventually reduce the cost and labor of adding fertilizer to a crop, but Kelly believes it's the consumer benefit that will make this technology widely accepted.
“There is a big consumer benefit in this case, and I think that changes the dynamic quite a bit,” he told Fast Company.