Plants at Joyn Bio Greenhouse in Woodland, California.

Photo courtesy of Joyn Bio

Nitrogen fertilizers are crucial for growing crops and feeding the world’s population. But it is expensive, it is critically scarce, and it contributes to climate change, because in the process of its manufacture greenhouse gases are released.

This is a difficult problem, but germs can help solve it.

This is the thesis of Mike Mile and the team of Joyn Bio, a startup launched in October 2017 as a joint partnership between the synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks and an investment conglomerate in the life sciences Bayer, Leaps by Bayer.

Joyn Bio, headquartered in Boston, is working to create a microbe that would allow farmers growing corn, wheat and rice to halve the use of nitrogen fertilizers while maintaining the same yields.

After the jump, Mill knew it was “the month,” he told CNBC in a phone call in April. After three and a half years of operation, Joyn Bio is testing prototypes, but another three to four years since the product was launched. Since its launch, Joyn Bio has raised $ 100 million from Bayer, Ginkgo and investment firm Viking Global to fund its operations.

If they can achieve, the potential impact will be significant.

“If it works, it’s very good. It’s a big ‘if’, but if it works, it’s nice,” said Josef Schmidhuber, an economist with the Food and Agriculture Organization. Schmidhuber admitted that he knows nothing about Joyn Bio, so can not vouch for the company, but the potential of the idea he recognizes as a change of game. “The idea is good. Brilliant. Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it,” he told CNBC.

Stanford Professor Anna M. Michalak, director of the global ecology department at the Carnegie Institution of Science, agreed.

“Developing approaches to reduce fertilizer use would be a win-win for the farmer, the environment and the climate,” Michalak told CNBC. “Now, I don’t know if this technology offered by this startup is really doing it.”

Big problems with nitrogen fertilizers

Plants at Joyn Bio Greenhouse in Woodland, California.

Photo courtesy of Joyn Bio

It has also risen: prices have risen more than 133% over last year, according to a report released Monday by Texas A&M University’s Department of Agricultural Economics. Another primary fertilizer of phosphorus and potassium has risen in price by almost 93% over the same period.

Nitrogen fertilizers need ammonia, which is created from hydrogen and nitrogen through an industrial process called Haber-Bosch. The process depends on natural gas, and gas prices have soared this year, thanks in part to Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has led to rising fertilizer prices, Schmidhuber told CNBC.

The alternative is often worse: “China still has coal plants,” which are used to make synthetic fertilizers, Schmidhuber said. “It’s certainly a very dirty business, and the Chinese themselves are very unhappy about it.”

Microbial replacement

Soybeans and other biologically similar legumes are able to fix nitrogen from the air without fertilizer. But cereals such as wheat, rice and corn cannot do this, and so the goal is to create a germ that can do it for them.

Joyn Bio is seeking to license the technology it is building from a giant seed company such as Bayer or Corteva. Mill said the germ should go to seed and then it will grow along with the corn plant.

The techniques and tools used by Joyn Bio have only become available in the last five to ten years, Mill told CNBC. So far, they have only been used to develop a specific e. stick or yeast product. In this case, the microbe will actually have to work with the corn plant in the field, which is a big leap.

Miles has been working in microbial agriculture for some time. He studied marine biology at Stanford and received his Ph.D. in agricultural and environmental chemistry from the University of California, Davis. Prior to launching Joyn Bio, Mill was CEO for 8 years at another microbial agricultural company, AgraQuest, which produced biological pest control products called biopesticides and which Bayer bought for $ 425 million. Mill worked at Bayer for five years after his first acquisition of startups and before the creation of Joyn Bio.

The prospect of Joyn Bio may be helped by a sudden spike in prices for traditional nitrogen fertilizers.

Plants at Joyn Bio Greenhouse in Woodland, California.

Photo courtesy of Joyn Bio

“Haber-Bosch is actually quite competitive, cheap and well-established,” Schmidhuber told CNBC. As long as there was a surplus of shale gas in the United States and “cheap gas from Russia” in Europe before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “the incentives to look beyond Haber-Bosch were very minimal.”

Joyn Bio will take some time to enter the market, in part because of the broad regulatory requirements that the company would have to meet.

“You have to conduct at least a couple of years of field trials,” Mile said. And before that, Gingko intends to acquire Joyn Bio on a deal that is expected to close by the end of 2022. The financial details of the deal are not disclosed.

But Mile is confident that if they can enter the market, demand will make economic sense for farmers.

“When we modeled it in terms of producer profitability, we did it at a time when fertilizers were relatively inexpensive,” Mile said. “So even under normal fertilizer cost scenarios it’s a financial benefit for the producer – growers have a big financial incentive to accept that.”

“I’m worried about the industry’s ability to make fertilizer to the end – and forget about the rest,” Schmidhuber told CNBC. “The problem we see at the moment is that there is a lack of food. This could get worse because Europe, trying to wean itself off Russian gas, actually wants to use gas for other purposes to keep warm and not produce fertilizer.” .

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