Joyn Bio aims to solve the global fertilizer problem with microbes

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Plants from the Joyn Bio greenhouse in Woodland, California.

Photo courtesy Joyn Bio

Nitrogen fertilizers are essential for growing crops and feeding the world’s population. But it’s expensive, in critical shortage, and contributes to climate change because the manufacturing process releases greenhouse gases.

It’s a tricky problem, but maybe microbes can help solve it.

This is the thesis of Mike Miille and the team of Joyn Bio, a start-up launched in October 2017 as part of a partnership between the synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks and the investment arm of the science conglomerate. of Bayer life, Leaps by Bayer.

Joyn Bio, headquartered in Boston, is working to design a microbe that would allow corn, wheat and rice growers to cut their nitrogen fertilizer use in half while maintaining the same crop yield.

From the jump, Miille knew it was a “moonshot,” he told CNBC in a phone call in April. After three and a half years of work, Joyn Bio is testing prototypes, but is still three or four years away from having a product to sell on the market. Since its launch, Joyn Bio has raised $100 million from Bayer, Ginkgo and investment house Viking Global to fund its operations.

If they can deliver, the potential impact is significant.

“If it works, great. It’s a big ‘if’, but if it works, great,” said Josef Schmidhuber, an economist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. ‘Agriculture. Schmidhuber admitted he didn’t know anything about Joyn Bio, so he couldn’t vouch for the company, but for the potential of the idea which he recognizes as a game-changer. “The idea is a good one. Brilliant. Absolutely. No doubt about it,” he told CNBC.

Anna M. Michalak, a Stanford professor and director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, agreed.

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

The big problems with nitrogen fertilizers

Plants from the Joyn Bio greenhouse in Woodland, California.

Photo courtesy Joyn Bio

It has also become expensive, with prices up more than 133% since last year, according to a report released Monday by the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University. Another primary fertilizer, consisting of phosphorus and potassium, increased by nearly 93% over the same period.

Nitrogen fertilizer needs ammonia, which is created from hydrogen and nitrogen using an industrial process called Haber-Bosch. This process relies on natural gas, and gas prices have skyrocketed this year thanks in part to the Russian war in Ukraine. This drove up fertilizer prices, Schmidhuber told CNBC.

The alternative is often worse: “In China, there are still coal-fired power plants” used to make synthetic fertilizers, Schmidhuber said. “It is of course a very dirty business, and the Chinese themselves are rather unhappy about it.”

A microbial substitute

Soybeans and other biologically similar legumes are able to fix nitrogen from the air without fertilizer. But grain products like wheat, rice, and corn can’t do that, so the goal is to engineer a microbe that can do that for them.

Joyn Bio aims to license the technology it builds to a giant seed company like Bayer or Corteva, for example. The microbe will have to go on a seed, and then the microbe will grow with the corn plant, Miille said.

The techniques and tools that Joyn Bio uses have only become readily available in the last five to 10 years, Miille told CNBC. So far they have only been used to design a specific e. coli or yeast product. In this case, the microbe will actually have to work with a corn plant in the field, which is a big step forward.

Miille has been working in the field of microbial agriculture for some time now. He studied marine biology at Stanford and earned a doctorate in agricultural and environmental chemistry from the University of California, Davis. Prior to launching Joyn Bio, Mille was CEO for 8 years of another microbial agriculture company, AgraQuest, which made biological pest control products called bio-pesticides, which Bayer bought for $425 million. Mille worked for five years at Bayer after its first start-up acquisition and before founding Joyn Bio.

Joyn Bio’s outlook could be boosted by the sudden spike in traditional nitrogen fertilizer prices.

Plants from the Joyn Bio greenhouse in Woodland, California.

Photo courtesy Joyn Bio

“Haber-Bosch is actually quite competitive, cheap and well-established,” Schmidhuber told CNBC. As long as there was an excess 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”.

It will take Joyn Bio some time to hit the market, in part because of the many regulatory requirements the company would have to comply with.

“You have to do at least a few years of field testing,” Mille said. And before that, Gingko intends to acquire Joyn Bio in a deal that is expected to close before the end of 2022. Financials of the deal are not disclosed.

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

“When we modeled this in terms of profitability for the grower, we did it at a time when fertilizers were relatively inexpensive,” Mille said. “So even in normal cost scenarios for fertilizer, this is a financial benefit to the grower – there is a big financial incentive for the grower to adopt this.”

“I worry about the industry’s ability to create a fertilizer endpoint — and forget about the rest,” Schmidhuber told CNBC. “The problem we see right now is that there is not enough food for everyone. It could actually get worse, because Europe, in its attempt to wean itself off Russian gas, actually wants use the gas for other purposes just for heat and not to produce fertilizer.

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