The acceptance of the microbiome diet as a means of achieving gut health among consumers could pave a path for a shift in attitude towards GM food, according to Michael Miille CEO at Joyn Bio.
Proponents of GM food contend that genetic engineering can help us find sustainable ways to feed people. One proponent is the US start-up Joyn Bio, a joint ag-tech venture between synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks and pharma giant Bayer, which was formed in 2017 with a $100 million Series A round coming from its two parent companies.
Engineering plants that fertilize themselves
Joyn Bio is attempting to engineer microbes that can provide plants with biological nitrogen fertilizer, thus decreasing the environmental impact of agriculture.
By engineering microbes it can eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers, which have boosted crop yields over the past century but in the process have harmed soil health and caused environmental ills. Runoff from excess nitrogen fertilizer into rivers and oceans has created a “dead zone” of toxic algae in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey, for example.
Joyn Bio is headquarted in Boston. Its testing facility in California focuses on the genetic modification of the colonies of bacteria that make up crops’ microbiomes. It can then engineer those microbes to produce specific proteins as possible alternative to chemical fertilizers and other chemicals.
Potential global solution to global challenges
Any product is unlikely to be ready for market before 2020. Neither will any product be offered in Europe, where regulations do not currently permit engineered microbial products as produced by Joyn Bio (its current focus is on offering its solution to growers in the US, Brazil and India).
It believes nevertheless that it offers a potential global solution to the challenges facing the food industry. Its goal is to engineer microbes to reduce the amount of industrial nitrogen fertilizer needed to grow crops like corn, wheat, or rice, to dramatically decrease the water pollution, fossil fuel used and greenhouse gases produced by agriculture today.
"What we were really launched around was nitrogen fixation and recognising the environmental impact both in production and in application of the synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, which is not sustainable, then at the same time trying to come up with a solution,” explained Miille.
Growers, he believes, are in desperate need of innovation and additional solutions given all the things they are confronting. Joyn Bio claims it can help farmers increase yield by promoting stronger plants and better nutrient uptake, ultimately contributing to the transformation of agriculture towards a more sustainable future.
Microbe engineering... like Fedex trucks delivering goods
How exactly does it all work? “Our product would be a microbe that associates with the plant and is delivered as a seed treatment,” said Miille.
Image the microbe as a trillion little FedEx trucks running all over the plant delivering cargo, he says. That cargo then takes nitrogen from the air, converts it into the nitrogen that the plant needs, and then gives it to the plant.
“It’s very similar to what happens in a soy bean plant naturally via evolution, but the soy and wheat plants never did that.”
All this can allow a grower to reduce their fertilizer input by 30-40%, thus saving the grower money and allowing them to benefit from an environmental standpoint.
The process could potentially be used to make food more nutritious too. "You could use the microbes to signal the plant to potentially produce more of its nutritious part - there are number of nutrition enhancements that you can engineer. It's not our initial focus because it's a little more challenging but [improved nutrition] is certainly something people are looking at across the whole food spectrum today.”
What about consumer acceptance?
GM foods have something of a toxic legacy with European consumers, however, of which Miille is well aware. His solution to this challenge is simply to be straight with people. The problems of the past came about because companies such as Monsanto failed to be, he said. "We’re trying to learn from that. I think it’s really critical to be transparent with consumers. We’ll want them to know we have these engineered microbes and here's what they did.”
If crops produced via engineered microbes are used to grow something ‘viable’ then people will accept it, he believes. Take the papaya industry in Hawaii, he noted, which was saved by GMO technology. "The same thing is going to happen with the US chestnut industry. There are going to be more examples of a pest or diseases that will threaten to wipe something out and the solution is biotechnology. And when you can save something when it’s that dramatic a benefit and you can communicate that to consumers, they get it.”
He continued: “For those of us on the science, technology and innovation side, the important thing is to understand how critical it is to engage with consumers and be transparent with them. The other side of the equation is to be able to articulate the benefit. If the benefit is that you either have strawberries or you don't, people will get that.
"Another thing in our favour is that people’s opinions and concerns about chemicals are probably at an all-time high.”
Lessons to learn from the microbiome diet
The growth in popularity of the microbiome diet among consumers is another potential factor in Joyn Bio’s favour. If consumers now accept that the microbes in our gut play a critical role in overall health, what’s not to stop them accepting the importance microbes could potentially have in agriculture?
“More people than ever are taking probiotics because it improves gut health,” said Miille. The next step is to say to consumers ‘that microbes are part of the solution and all we've really done is taken this microbe and selectively optimised it for its particular purpose’. These kind of discussions, he said, will get people to accept that “microbes are going to be an integral part of agriculture over the next 20-30 years.”