Farmers and scientists around the world have been working to develop self-fertilizing cereal crops like corn, wheat and rice for nearly 50 years. For the first time, Pivot Bio has succeeded in making this possible.
My co-founder, Alvin Tamsir, and I set out six years ago to make fertilizer smarter, easier to use and more environmentally sound. Last week’s story described how Pivot Bio has built a renewable, clean alternative to chemical fertilizer through development of innovative nitrogen-producing microbes. We have re-awakened hidden potential within these microbes using a powerful technology called computationally-guided microbe remodeling. These microbes adhere to the roots of cereal crops, eg. corn, wheat or rice, and responsively deliver nitrogen on-demand to the crop. It means we can grow more food with better efficiency. Here’s how it works…
Making crop nutrition easier
As a seed germinates and becomes a seedling, an acre of corn requires about 1 lb of nitrogen each day (1.12 kg/ha) (Iowa State University Extension data). The nitrogen requirements skyrocket to nearly 2.5 lb each day during the later stages of vegetative growth (2.8 kg/ha). Many crops follow a similar pattern.
Chemical fertilizer provides a supply of nitrogen for the crop during this period of elevated nutrient requirement. USDA data indicates the average US corn farmer typically applies between 130 and 200 lb of nitrogen per acre (146 to 224 kg/ha). All that nitrogen is added by heavy machinery crossing the fields, burning diesel and requiring hours of human labor. Rain, heat and the soil microbiome degrade chemical fertilizer during those intervening months. Degradation means wasted money, and lost nitrogen can become pollution instead of harvested yield. The United Nations Environment Programme has calculated that nearly 80% of fertilizer is lost before a crop can utilize it.
In contrast, we’ve designed products that are easy to use and deliver consistent performance, regardless of the weather. Pivot Bio microbes can be coated onto seeds or added to the furrow as seeds are planted. As the seed germinates, our microbes produce the right amount of nitrogen each day for the crop. They grow alongside the plant, adhere to its roots, and thrive during the later vegetative stages of corn growth. Because the microbes adhere to the plant’s roots, heavy rains do not wash them away. Pivot Bio microbes transfer nitrogen directly to the plant. This significantly reduces leaching and denitrification. These microbes also perform consistently across variable topography, soil type and organic matter.
The proof is in the field
This past year, the Pivot Bio team executed on ambitious goals. In 2017, our microbes were tested in more than 5,000 field trial plots in over 100 locations. These studies helped us refine product concepts and better understand all the ways our microbes benefit crops.
Highlights from 2017 field trials:
- Pivot Bio microbes produced over 35 lb of nitrogen per acre (40 kg/ha), measured using isotopic ¹⁵N tracers.
- Yields improved an average of 4 bushels across all acres (0.27 t/ha) and up to 15 bushels under nutrient stress conditions (1 t/ha).
- Win rates exceeded 70%.
In 2017, the Pivot Bio team also tested the microbes forming the core of our second generation products. These microbes are projected to supply 100 lb of nitrogen per acre (112 kg/ha). They also solubilize phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), and we will be scaling a clean alternative to all NPK fertilizer later this year.
Pivot Bio collaborator evaluating crop trial in South Dakota
I am proud of the scientific advancements made at Pivot Bio in 2017. These accomplishments will ultimately help farmers produce more on their land while supporting their commitment to sustainability. Five seasons of field development have laid the foundation for transformative products that deliver nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to crops like corn, wheat and rice. Pivot Bio can replace all chemical fertilizer with something better. This summer, Pivot Bio microbes will be operating at scale in the hands of early adopters. I look forward to sharing stories from these partners throughout the year.
For more information, please visit pivotbio.com.