Fresh snow coats the sidewalks outside Indigo Ag Inc.’s Boston offices, but inside the temperature is calibrated to mimic spring in the Midwest. Hundreds of almost identical soy seedlings sit beneath high-intensity arc lamps, basking in the artificially sunny 60F weather.
The plants aren’t destined to stay identical for long. “We haven’t imposed the stress yet,” says Geoffrey von Maltzahn, the company’s lanky 37-year-old co-founder. The MIT-trained microbiologist gestures toward photos showing what happens when you apply Indigo’s signature product—a coating of carefully chosen microbes—to some seeds but not others before planting, then dial back the water supply: One shows a tall, flourishing stalk; the other, what looks like a tangle of shriveled leaves.
In humans, a healthy microbiome—the universe of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that lives inside all of us—is increasingly recognized as critical to overall health. The same is true of the plant world, and Indigo is among the dozen or so agricultural technology startups trying to take advantage of the growing scientific consensus. Their work is enabled by advances in machine learning and a steep reduction in the cost of genetic sequencing, used by companies to determine which microbes are present. Approaches vary: AgBiome LLC, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is studying how microbes can help control sweet potato weevils in Africa, while Ginkgo Bioworks Inc. announced a $100 million joint venture with Bayer AG to explore how microbes can encourage plants to produce their own nitrogen. Read more