Not all bacteria is bad!
Bacteria has had a bad name for years. Humans have long held the belief that cleaner is better. From antibiotics to anti-bacterial wipes, gels, sprays, and soaps, etc., society has become accustomed to killing any and all bacteria in or around them.
The rise of the human microbiome
But the truth is, not all bacteria is bad. In fact, scientists have found that many strains of bacteria are vital in maintaining good health. This changing opinion about bacteria has led to an increase in both the interest in and understanding of the human microbiome.
In an effort to help increase awareness and knowledge in the space, a startup called uBiome provides microbiome testing to individuals, with the ultimate goal of building a large database of information they will - if permitted - sell to third parties that want to learn, analyze, and hopefully make impactful advances in human health.
Plants have a microbiome, too
Like humans, plants also contain millions of tiny little bugs. And like the human microbiome, we have treated the microbiomes in plants pretty much the same way (bye bye bugs!).
Modern-day farming products like fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides have largely extinguished plant microbiomes. However, like humans, certain strains of plant bacteria provide not only necessary nutrients for health but also protection against pests and diseases.
Reintroducing and leveraging the good bugs in a plant’s ecosystem can not only produce better, more resilient crops but also provide the higher yields that conventional methods like GMOs and selective breeding no longer offer. Essentially, microbiome technology may ultimately be the answer to the world’s growing demand for food.
A high-level overview of the plant microbiome
Advances in technology are driving innovation
Indigo is one startup in the space working to create products that reintroduce “good bugs” to plants. The company tests modern seeds, comparing their microbiome to those of their wild ancestors, old seeds in storage, and superior examples of modern crops (like plants that thrive in desert conditions). Doing these comparisons helps the company identify beneficial microbes and find correlations between the presence of certain microbes and plants thriving under specific conditions, like a drought.
To be able to do this, Indigo conducts DNA sequencing on the seeds and plant samples. So far, the company's research and development has produced more than 400,000 microbial sequences, what Indigo claims to be the largest collection of microbes that live in plants.
However, this scale of DNA sequencing and discovery into the plant microbiome wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago. It was simply too expensive. But today, people can get their entire genome sequenced for as little as $1,000, compared to a whopping $100 million just 15 years ago.
“If we’re right about this technology [microbiome tech] and it has the sort of impact we think it does, the plant microbiome is going to be worth tens of billions of dollars and it will fundamentally reshape agriculture.”
- David Perry, CEO, Indigo
Technological advances like the ones these startups are pursuing are helping to make R&D cheaper and accessible and are dramatically lowering the barrier to entry in the market. These developments will only accelerate innovation in the space, enabling startups, entrepreneurs, scientists, and other stakeholders to create and discover more. We are just at the cusp of understanding the intricacies of the microbiome - for humans and plants - but its potential to treat conditions, cure diseases, and feed the world’s growing population is both undeniable and exciting.
Sources: Reuters, Nature, and MIT