Indigo’s Microbial Treatment for Cotton Reaps Gains in Crop Yields

Xconomy Boston — 

Drought presents challenges to cotton farmers in West Texas and this past growing season was no exception. But despite periods of moderate to severe drought in the region, some farmers reported higher crop yields after using a microbial treatment that helped their cotton plants hold up better in dry weather.

Cotton plants treated with the microbial product averaged yield increases of 11 percent compared against untreated plants, according to Indigo, the Boston-based agtech startup that developed the product and is releasing the first data on its commercial performance. Those gains were achieved without using more water or any chemicals on the cotton, planted on 50,000 acres in Texas and several other states. The results are slightly better than what the company saw in field trials where the average yield increase was 10 percent.

Indigo presented the data last week at the Beltwide Cotton Conference in Dallas. While the company does not need to do a post-marketing study of the product, CEO David Perry says Indigo will conduct such analyses every year.

“Part of our innovation model and business model is to continue to innovate after we’ve commercialized,” he says.

Indigo made waves last year after raising $100 million in venture funding, reportedly the largest amount ever raised by an agtech startup. The company’s software analyzes the plant microbiome, working to identify which microorganisms help a plant when it faces a particular stress, such as drought. Indigo Cotton, which is applied as a seed coating, launched last spring.

Indigo took its cotton microbial from discovery to commercial launch in three years. By comparison, chemical products and genetically engineered crops can take a decade or more to develop. Perry says that Indigo’s approach allows the startup to refine the product using real-world data culled from tens of thousands of acres instead of small test plots. That approach better enables the company to refine the product, figuring out the concentrations and microbial combinations that work best, he explains. Microbes interact with the plant and soil environment, which can varyfrom plant to plant and from one part of the country to another. Perry says refinement could eventually lead to the development of microbial products optimized to work in particular regions.

Indigo is not the only company developing and commercializing crop microbial products. Most of the big agriculture companies have microbial products on the market or in development. Last month, Novozymes (NASDAQ OMX: NZYM) and Monsanto (NYSE: MON) launched a microbial seed coating for corn, a product derived from a fungus found in soil that the companies have been jointly developing since forming a microbials partnership in 2013. While Indigo Cotton’s 11 percent yield gains shows success, that performance is in line with gains achieved by other microbial products, says Maggie Wagner, a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University, whose research focuses on understanding the role of microbials in corn disease.

Wagner says she hasn’t heard of companies taking Indigo’s iterative approach to microbial development. But she adds that the company’s plan to improve the product in real time makes sense, making the commercial results part of an ongoing experiment that the company can learn from. Those post-marketing studies can also help Indigo understand how a microbe is interacting with the surrounding environment. Companies have been marketing agricultural microbials as better for the environment than crop chemicals. Wagner, who has no connection to Indigo, says that microbes don’t bring the environmental effects that crop chemicals do. But she cautions that the interaction of microbes with the environment is still not fully understood.

The performance of Indigo’s product in cotton does necessarily translate to other crops, Wagner says. While some microbes benefit a wide variety of plants in a wide variety of conditions, other microbes have an effect that is more limited to specific plants or plant groups. In other cases, microbes are specific to certain environments.

Perry won’t go into details about how his company’s microbes help a cotton plant manage water more efficiently. He says that the performance of Indigo Cotton does not directly affect the other microbial candidates in Indigo’s pipeline, though he does say it confirms the company’s approach.

Indigo plans to launch two new microbial products later this later this year, though Perry won’t yet say which crops are the next targets (last year, he said the company’s next product would be for wheat). The company is also working with regulators in other countries to secure marketing approvals.

Photo by Flickr user Kimberly Vardeman via a Creative Commons license.