How Bayer and Ginkgo Teamed Up in a $100M Synthetic Biology Bet

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commercialized yield-improving microbes for corn, soybean, and wheat, among others. Monsanto is in line to become part of Bayer in a $66 billion deal that is still under review by regulators in the U.S. and Europe. Miille says it’s too soon to talk about how Monsanto’s microbials portfolio will fit with a division of Bayer that was formed from the 2012 acquisition of Davis, CA-based AgraQuest. But he sees no overlap with the new joint venture.

“The approach and the targets and the products that come out of it will all be unique to this new company,” Miille says. “There’s nothing happening today that is competitive to that.”

The agricultural microbes commercially available today were found growing naturally with crops, by screening soil or plant samples for beneficial microorganisms. Those microorganisms are formed into a coating applied to seeds; these microbes then grow with the plant. This approach uses what’s already in nature, Roger Beachy, chair of Indigo’s scientific advisory board, said in July at the Crops & Chemicals conference in Raleigh, NC.

The new joint venture from Bayer and Ginkgo, however, would take an engineering approach. Miille says the regulatory path for engineered microbes could be like the one taken by the microbes now on the market. But he acknowledges that because these technologies are new to agriculture, there may be some regulatory unknowns. That caution is echoed by academic researchers who aren’t affiliated with industry. Commenting on Indigo’s work in cotton, North Carolina State University postdoctoral researcher Maggie Wagner told Xconomy earlier this year that the environmental impacts of these new microbial products is not yet completely understood. A microbe functions within a community of microorganisms. These new microbes could affect these communities and the environment in unforeseen ways, she said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has regulations for engineered microorganisms. Miille says the rules can depend on various factors, including the claims made by a company and the region where the product will be used. But he emphasizes that the joint venture will conduct studies to back up its claims, as well as provide documentation of safety.

Wheat and corn are among the crops where the engineered microbes could be applied. The joint venture will initially work from Ginkgo’s headquarters while a Boston facility for the new company is built. A team of 35 will use Ginkgo’s technology to design nitrogen-fixing microbes by starting from a Bayer library of more than 100,000 microbes. Following the design work, testing will be done in greenhouses at Bayer’s biologicals site in West Sacramento, CA, where the new company is expected to employ 15. Funding for the joint venture is projected to last five years, Kelly says, and if all goes well, the microbes could reach greenhouse testing within three years.

Miille says these microbes are particularly important to Bayer and Ginkgo because they will be a test case. Successful development of nitrogen-fixing microbes would support use of the technology as a platform to address other big agricultural challenges, such as the fungal diseases of citrus greening and soybean rust.

“If we can get this to work, the concept is it can be customized to [address] a certain problem,” he says. “That’s the whole point of synthetic biology.”

Photo by Flickr user Zoltan Voros via a Creative Commons license.

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