Meet our Soil Microbes

Sarah Bloch May 16, 2019

MeetOurMicrobes

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live on plant roots can be found in every single land environment on earth, but researchers kept it local when Pivot Bio started up its program to isolate soil microbes. As part of its process to identify microbes for product development, PivotBio’s soil scientists asked friends and family from all over the U.S. to send in a sample of soil from their land. And some Pivot Bio team members did a little digging themselves!

Our plant science team lead, Rosemary Clark, dug into her vegetable garden to provide a soil sample. Chief scientific officer Alvin Tamsir asked his family in southern California to share some soil from their backyard. I went to my parent’s land in Missouri, contributing a soil sample to the research program that I am now helping to direct.

For a new start-up, crowdsourcing samples was a quick way to get soil with the right permissions from the right places. Just a teaspoon of soil can contain 10 billion microbes or more. With buckets of soil making their way into the lab, Pivot Bio researchers had a whole galaxy of microbes to explore.  

Some of the samples haven’t revealed any surprises yet. The Los Angeles soil samples, one from a pot and one from the backyard itself, didn’t reveal any strong nitrogen fixers. Others, like the soil from the vegetable garden, validated our approach. In that sample, we found that our assay detected well known nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Every sample our scientists investigate adds to Pivot Bio’s depth of knowledge and expertise on the soil microbiome, whether they immediately yield nitrogen fixing microbes or not.

The most exciting story to come out of our friends and family soil samples is the microbe that eventually became Pivot Bio PROVEN™.  My dad’s sample came from fertile soil near the banks of the Mississippi River on a small plot of land surrounded by cornfields, and contained a microbe that was different and more robust than the others.  This microbe loved corn roots, growing enthusiastically with the plant as the root system developed. It turned out to be just as good at providing nitrogen, and it’s our inaugural product, Pivot Bio PROVEN™, which is in the fields of farmers across the U.S., feeding fields across the Corn Belt.

For me, knowing that our winning microbe came from soil that I’ve known since childhood brings a great sense of pride and responsibility. Boating on the Mississippi has always brought a lot of joy to my family and I, but freshwater ecosystems are at risk because farmers lack sustainable nitrogen management options. It’s part of what drives me as a scientist at Pivot Bio to provide farmers options that will reduce these effects. And seeing the excitement from growers to have a new option in PROVEN is hugely rewarding.

Soil microbes are the heart of Pivot Bio’s work. The more we learn about the communities they form in the soil and on plant roots, the more excited we become about a future where microbes provide all the nutrients a growing agricultural crop needs. It’s time to bring this natural nutrition into the field for today’s farmers, and step one is isolating those microbes that love the plants we grow from soils across the US. Thanks to our community for sharing their soil with us!