OCT 05, 2018 7:06 PM PDT

Reducing Pollution with Engineered Bacteria

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Some creative strategies have been proposed as solutions to climate change, from practical to outlandish. Now, a group of deep-pocketed investors including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are funding projects that are investigating the potential of bacteria to reduce the world’s pollution. One major source of that pollution is fertilizer used on food crops. Bacteria that can pull nitrogen out of the environment could help reduce the many problems created by fertilizers, which do significant damage to waterways, and the air. Learn more about Pivot Bio from the video.

The investors created Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), which aims to provide cash flow for companies without expecting a return on the investment for twenty years, so-called patient capital. Pivot Bio is one recipient; they’ve gotten $70 million for their genetically engineered bacteria research

It’s been established that in agriculture, too much fertilizer is used. "A plant is kind of like a human. As it grows up, it has growth spurts," said Karsten Temme, the company's co-founder, and CEO. "In the middle of the [growing] season, the plant is a teenager — you need to give it nutrients as fast as you can because that's when it's growing the quickest." 

Farmers don’t go out into the fields with fertilizer while their plants are in the middle of growing; it would crush them. Instead, they apply a bunch in the off-season where it soaks into the soil. It can then get into the air as nitrous oxide, a potent cause of climate change. It also leeches into waterways, wreaking havoc on marine life. It can also cause rashes, on people, and can damage the liver or kidney if ingested.

Pivot Bio has found a microbe that can reduce excess fertilizer. A genetic modification made by the company activates the microbe when it’s exposed to nitrogen fertilizer, and it can be safely applied to plant seeds.

"As soon as that seed germinates and the first roots form, our microbes can latch on to that root and cover it like a glove," explained Temme. The bacteria can provide the plant with food every day, so there’s no longer a need for all that fertilizer. Farmers just have to warm up to this idea.

To encourage them, Pivot Bio suggested that farmers add the modified bacteria to their tanks of fertilizer and insecticide. Fertilizer use takes a lot of energy, so it could be a big boon for farmers who adopt it.

"Our first commitment is to bring a product into the marketplace for US corn farmers," said Temme. 

Pivot Bio plans to move onto other major crops next, including wheat and rice. Those crops and corn use about half of the nitrogen in the world, said Temme.

Source: Pivot Bio, Business Insider, Geophysical Research Letters, Environmental Research Letters

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
NOV 25, 2019
Drug Discovery & Development
NOV 25, 2019
Darobactin: Promising New Drug to Combat Antibiotic Resistance
Every year, around 700,000 people are estimated to die from drug-resistant infections thanks to our overuse of antibiotics both in agriculture and medicine...
NOV 26, 2019
Microbiology
NOV 26, 2019
New Drug Can Promote Resistance in the Flu Virus
A flu drug, while still safe and effective, encourages flu viruses to mutate, especially in children....
DEC 05, 2019
Clinical & Molecular DX
DEC 05, 2019
Catching drug-resistant HIV mutants with next generation sequencing
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-positive individuals are treated with antiretroviral therapies to reduce the amount of circulating virus, restore their...
DEC 09, 2019
Genetics & Genomics
DEC 09, 2019
Researchers Rewire E. coli to Consume Carbon Dioxide
Milo et. al.   Researchers have genetically rewired the metabolism of Escherichia coli to be autotrophic, using formate (COOH) as a food sou...
FEB 02, 2020
Microbiology
FEB 02, 2020
A Potential Treatment for MERS is Found
A coronavirus causes MERS, which currently has no treatment. This work may help change that....
FEB 03, 2020
Drug Discovery & Development
FEB 03, 2020
HIV Viral Structures Improve Therapeutics
Researchers have recently discovered how a powerful class of HIV drugs bind to a key piece of HIV machinery. Their findings, for the first time, shows how ...
Loading Comments...