$100M venture plans microbe-made fertilizer

A new $100 million venture between pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks aims to replace manmade nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture by using genetically modified microbes.

“We’ll take those microbes that live on these other crops, we’ll insert the DNA to essentially train them to take the nitrogen gas out of the air and turn it into fertilizer,” said Jason Kelly, chief executive of Ginkgo, a Boston company that designs products made by living organisms.

The companies say the process for making nitrogen fertilizer is responsible for 3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The process of making ammonia from nitrogen gas for fertilizer uses 3 percent of the world’s natural gas because of the great amounts of energy required.

Kelly said some plants, including peanuts, already have microbes that can turn the nitrogen in the air into fertilizer, and the new company plans to modify microbes that live on common crops such as wheat and corn to do the same thing. The result, Kelly said, could be a complete replacement for nitrogen fertilizer.

Ginkgo, which refers to itself as a “synthetic biology” company, primarily designs microbes that are capable of growing products for fragrances, nutrition and cosmetics. The company has been developing a strain of yeast that produces rose oil, allowing perfume makers to avoid the process of crushing rose petals.

In a statement, Bayer said using microbes is a key to advancing agriculture.

“The plant microbiome is one of the next frontiers in sustainable agriculture,” said Axel Bouchon, head of the Bayer Lifescience Center. “And it may enable us to take a major leap in plant physiology: producing nitrogen fertilizer directly in the plant.”

The new as-yet unnamed company will be based in Boston, and will be funded by Ginkgo, Bayer and Viking Global Investors. Dr. Mike Miille, currently an executive at Bayer subsidiary Crop Science, will serve as interim CEO.

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