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on the inside of a plant’s roots, as compared to the outside. But she adds that Indigo’s innovation might be in how it screens samples to find the most promising microbes.
Drought triggers a number of biological responses within plants as they try to manage what little water they have. These responses happen naturally but microbes can enhance them, Beattie says. Some microbes can influence root growth, which would improve a plant’s ability to capture water from the soil. Microbes can also affect a plant’s hormonal responses, either promoting growth or reducing environmental stress. Many bacteria produce enzymes that reduce the accumulation of a hormone produced while under stress, she says. By counteracting this stress hormone, a microbe could have the effect of helping a plant withstand drought.
Another microbial approach would be to augment a plant’s water conservation activity. When plants don’t have enough water, one of their responses is to accumulate compounds that help them attract water, Beattie says. A microbe could enhance this ability to fight water loss.
To date, Indigo says it has tested its microbes on different crops on three different continents and in four different growing seasons. Indigo’s water stress microbe has been planted on more than 50,000 acres in five states, including Texas—the nation’s top cotton producer. In its field tests, the company found that Indigo Cotton improved crop yield by 10 percent. Perry says that real-world results will vary, depending on rainfall. In an unusually wet year, the microbe’s impact could be less; in a dry year, it could be more.
Beattie sees those gains as realistic, though she notes that when addressing plant stress, the objective is protecting against loss, rather than increasing yield. “We’re not growing plants more, we’re preventing them from dying 10 percent more—which is still a gain,” she says.
If Indigo’s water stress microbe works by promoting a plant growth hormone, Beattie says it’s reasonable to expect that the company could bring that capability to other crops because that hormone is similar in many plants. Indigo is planning to roll out a water stress microbe for wheat in the fall. The company is currently testing 12 different crops, though Perry wouldn’t say which ones. He also wouldn’t say the specific applications the company is targeting, other than that the company is testing environmental stresses, such as drought, as well as biological stresses.
Indigo plans to make its first microbe available by selling directly to farmers, but doing so with a different business approach. The company aims to market its product through a risk-sharing model that charges the farmer only when there is a measureable increase in yield.
And that risk is substantial. Beattie says that the Indigo product is essentially insurance against loss if there is a drought. But if farmers have gone through the upfront investment in the product and there is no drought, they’ve paid for the technology but received no benefit.