Reflecting on the Power of the Plant Microbiome for World Water Day

22. March, 2021

Farmers depend on water for their business, as much as seeds, sun, and fertilizer – and it shows. Agriculture consumes 70% of the world’s freshwater an 85% of the available water in the U.S. annually. With growing demand for food running up against increasing water stress from droughts and declining groundwater resources farmers are in need more than ever of sustainable practices and inputs to reliably grow food.

This is exactly the kind of challenge Indigo was founded to address. Inspired by insights from the human microbiome, we wondered: what if the microbes living inside of plants could help protect them from stress? An early hypothesis was that naturally occurring microbes living inside a plant – known as “endophytes” – can optimize crop health under water stress and improve productivity.

After seven years, we have built a world-class database of microbial genomic information and our endophyte collection has grown to include strains isolated from every major agricultural crop in the world and many of their ancestors. These have been isolated from every plant tissue, including one that might seem surprising: the microbiome of agricultural seeds. Inspired by the passing of beneficial microbiomes from mother to child in human biology, we wondered whether plants too might pass on beneficial microbes down to the next generation. After all, if the microbes within a plant’s leaves, roots, and stems provide it with important survival benefits, then passing them on will give their progeny an advantage.

While evidence that endophytes reside within plant tissues goes back decades, relatively few groups in academia focus on characterizing these microbes relative to the microbes in soil and rhizosphere communities. Even fewer groups have taken an interest in the microbiomes of plant seeds. But there were a few and the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), the largest non-university research and technology organization in Austria, had the most advanced effort to explore the benefits of seed endophytes in agriculture.

Over multiple visits to Austria in 2014, we formed a great relationship with the AIT team. Over hot orangenpunsch (a Viennese sweet rum drink) at an invigoratingly chilly outdoor holiday festival in Austria, Angela Sessitsch, Birgit Mitter, and others from the Institute were generous enough to spend extra time discussing the many possibilities of working with Indigo. Whether it was the punsch, the seasonal spirit, or our shared views on the lifestyles of plant endophytes, those imaginative discussions set in motion a multi-year collaboration to sequence and assess the diverse seed microbial communities that have co-evolved with plants for millions of years.

This month, the fruits of this close collaboration are on full display. Indigo has received certification for a new seed treatment, W10, which derives from the AIT strain collection, in key markets across the world, including the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine, Hungary, and Turkey. It joins
a collection of Indigo's biological products – biotrinsic™ – which are derived from plants, for plants, and can meaningfully improve crop resilience and yield. 

At its core, W10 is powered by a workhorse microbe, a reliable microscopic part of nature capable of increasing root growth and water uptake. Where did we discover the bacterial wonder driving W10? An organic corn seed.

The data for W10 was compelling from the start. Through greenhouse trials, treated plants showed vigorous early root growth and larger overall growth than their untreated counterparts. Field trial data would later back up these findings, with one corn field even showing an average increase in root area by ~50% and seedling leaf area by ~25% in the U.S.

Helping plants start strong and stay strong through their life cycle helps them yield more. This is proven out by W10. The treatment lifted corn yields an average of 5 to 12%, as observed under a broad range of conditions across the six countries W10 is now registered in for commercial use. W10 also works with the plant to help it better tolerate environmental stresses. That includes an average yield uplift of 12 bushels per acre for corn in the US experiencing drought conditions during grain fill. Yield boosts with W10 have also been observed in cereal crops, like sorghum, which saw an average increase of 7% in trials conducted with private research companies.

As we scale the Carbon by Indigo program, which supports farmers in the adoption of regenerative practices to earn carbon credits, we are excited to announce new products like this – powerful solutions for increasing crop resilience and water-use efficiency. It is an important part of our comprehensive support for farmers to increase their yield potential while not overusing natural resources.

At Indigo, our mission has remained constant from the first hypothesis around the plant microbiome, to the many questions we continue asking about agriculture today. W10 embodies that mission of harnessing nature to help farmers sustainably feed the planet. And it’s still just the beginning.

A number of variables can affect outcomes on any particular farmland; experiences and results may vary. Indigo makes no representation, warranty or guarantee as to any results or outcomes in connection with the information and data provided.