Mighty Farming Microbes: Companies Harness Bacteria To Give Crops A Boost

Mighty Farming Microbes: Companies Harness Bacteria To Give Crops A Boost

Using microbes for farming

What if farmers, instead of picking up some agricultural chemicals at their local dealer, picked up a load of agricultural microbes instead?

It's something to contemplate, because some big names in the pesticide business — like Bayer and Monsanto — are putting money behind attempts to turn soil microbes into tools that farmers can use to give their crops a boost.

It's a symptom of the soaring interest in the ways microbes affect all of life. In our bodies, they help fight off disease. In the soil, they help deliver nutrients to plants, and perhaps much more.

The most direct way to take advantage of microbes in farming — an approach that's been around for decades, in fact — is to deploy them as weapons against insects or weeds.

Pam Marrone, founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, in Davis, Calif., has been spent most of her professional life looking for such microbial pesticides and bringing them to market.

She shows me a few of her newest candidates: colonies of microorganisms growing in little round petri dishes. Some are fuzzy; some are slimy. Marrone thinks they're beautiful. "They're all different colors," she points out. "You've got orange, blue, purple, black, boring tan and magenta."

The real test of their value, though, will be seeing whether they can kill a few other living creatures in this laboratory: crop-eating insects. The company maintains a collection of cabbage loopers, beet army worms, corn rootworms, green peach aphids, spider mites and a few others.

Marrone is also looking for microbes that kill weeds — and she thinks she may have found one. The company's scientists discovered it in soil collected from the garden of a Buddhist temple in Japan. It doesn't harm insects, but it kills many plants. Marrone thinks that it might eventually be a weedkiller that organic farmers can use. She says there's huge demand for such a thing.

"I can go into a chemical distributor in the Central Valley of California and say, 'What's your greatest unmet need?' and honest to God, this chemical dealer will tell me it's organic weed control," she says. "It's remarkable."

Marrone is hoping to submit a pile of data to the Environmental Protection Agency later this year, asking for approval to sell this microbe-produced herbicide to farmers.