Probiotics: What Does the Microbiome Mean for Agriculture?

microbiome in agriculture

Probiotics: What Does the Microbiome Mean for Agriculture?

When Dr. Jeffrey Gordon discusses the microbiome of the human gut, he likes to make it sound a bit like science fiction. Dr. Gordon – a renowned biologist, professor, and Director of the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at Washington University in St. Louis – leads with this fact:

Ninety percent of the cells in your body are not human cells.

The simple explanation for this rather startling tidbit? The vast majority of cells in our bodies are bacterial. Each of us is a living, breathing collection of many mini-universes, with millions of microbial cells forming the diverse microbiomes that allow our human systems to carry out thousands of processes.

Science fiction, this is not. Thanks to rapidly evolving technology, not only do we know a lot about the human gut microbiome (such as gut microorganisms’ key role in fermentating dietary fiber to allow for easier absorption by the human host), but we also know that it is relatively easy to sequence these microbes’ DNA. As sequencing becomes cheaper and more popular – and DNA databases grow larger – we have the ability to identify all organisms in the human gut with just one sample swab. That’s good news for any patient seeking answers about issues ranging from imbalances to adverse food reactions to environment-related digestive distress.

Just as the study of gut flora carries tremendous possibilities and potential for how one begins to understand how these microbes impact human health, the same principles can be applied to agricultural technology and how we grow and produce foods.

The team at Lewis & Clark Ventures views ag-tech advances as an integral component not only to growing our portfolio, but also to the production and delivery of food worldwide. The same technology that allows us to sequence DNA in the human gut (and answer questions as specific as “how did this person react to a stressful day?” and “what happens to this individual when she consumes dairy?”) also allows biologists to go into the soil and answer questions like: What microbes are in soil in which corn or soybeans are grown? What microbes are there after a hard rain, or after weeds emerge? Likewise, what is the makeup of the microbiome in roots – and, just as the majority of cells in humans are not human, how many plant cells are not plant? What can the bacteria, fungi, and single-cell animals tell us about specific plots of soil?

The answers we uncover and the implications they carry are tremendously crucial to precision agriculture. Armed with the DNA sequencing of soil microbiomes, scientists and farmers can ascertain which plants grow best in specific microbial environments. They can also better pinpoint cause and effect – for example, we know that plants grow better after fertilization, but is this due to a change in physical soil properties or because of the precise makeup of the microbiome? Further, how does the soil microbiome influence the root (which then influences flowering, which then influences yield, etc.)?

We also must evaluate the ways in which plant microbiomes work together and must appreciate their differences. Just as humans have different microbiomes in different parts of the body – the gut microbiome is different from the skin microbiome, which is different from the hair microbiome – plant microbiomes differ from leaf to root to seed. Equally important is the understanding that plants, as biological organisms, live in and are impacted by other forms of life.

With this in mind, a number of promising ag-tech companies are starting to take a new look at the (very) old literature that says organisms in the soil have an effect on the nutrition of plants. Modern technology allows these companies to modify the soil (via methods like sequestering such nutrients as phosphorus and nitrogen, or adding additional components based on plants’ metabolism in order to make the plants healthier).

Our most recent ag-tech investment, New Leaf Symbiotics, focuses on the plant microbiome. The company started from the observation that a class of microbes known as Pink Pigmented Facultative Methylotrophs (PPFM’s) can be found on just about every surface of a plant. Working from this association, the company is commercializing strains of PPFM’s that can improve the health of the world’s most important crops.

At Lewis & Clark Ventures, we understand and are energized by the potential of this science, and we seek startups that see the advantages of these microbe communities and wish to apply them to precision agriculture.