The Challenges of Nitrogen Fixing Microbes and What it Means for R&D and Commercial Efforts in the Industry
This week I read a recent journal article from Trends in Microbiology touching on the dynamics of nitrogen-fixing organisms in agriculture, pointing out the significant scientific challenges that companies are working to overcome to deliver commercially viable crop-agnostic, N-fixing products into the market.
I think there are points in this article that contextualize why many products see inconsistent responses in a field setting.
Crop-agnostic, nitrogen-fixing biological products have huge potential in agriculture.
Crops like corn or wheat fixing even a portion of their Nitrogen needs can increase yields and quality, decrease deleterious environmental impacts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer plus streamline logistical costs and efficiency across a farm operation by minimizing application needs.
The agribusiness and venture capital world knows the potential.
The maker of nitrogen-fixing product ProveN 40, Pivot Bio, has raised over $617 million to date and is on millions of acres.
Sound Agriculture, the maker of Source, has raised over $150 million(*EDITED - Crunchbase says $170 million, Sound Agriculture reached out to inform it is actually $155 million).
Kula Bio (an organization that is pre-commercial) has raised over $74 million.
Corteva Agriscience purchased biological company Symborg in 2022 ( for an undisclosed amount), a company whose most prominent product has the active ingredient Methylobacterium symbioticum, a nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
Developing a crop-agnostic, nitrogen-fixing product is incredibly challenging, though. As early as 1917, scientists attempted to cultivate the rhizobia from legumes and inoculate these into other crop species. To date, however, none of these attempts to transfer the complex root nodule to non-legume plants has succeeded.
This is why much of the effort has been focused on free-living diazotrophic (nitrogen-fixing) organisms.
There are many significant challenges to overcome before we see a point where crop-agnostic, Nitrogen-fixing microbes become a standard application. Even though strides have been made with several commercial products above, they are still imperfect at delivering a response consistent with expectations and economic demands, as an NDSU study highlighted earlier this year (I dove into the dynamics of it here: Upstream Ag Insights - April 30th 2023).
The aforementioned recent study highlighted some of the specific challenges surrounding diazotrophs I called out in April that are worth digging deeper into.
Just like all living organisms, N-fixing microbes have many challenges that need to be overcome, like the ones highlighted here:
If we ignore points #1 and #2, I think the paper linked above sheds some very useful light on points #3 and #4, specifically around these two aspects:
Getting nitrogen fixed by the microbe into the plant efficiently.
Microbe “fitness” and their ability to compete in a hostile environment.
There are opportunities to improve in both of these areas within the industry and numerous examples to illustrate what needs to be done below.