Agri-biotechnology Briefing

Cytozyme’s Eric Baughman Talks of Biostimulants that Help Plants Cope with Stresses Naturally

A lightly edited speech by Eric Baughman, MD of Cytozyme Labs, at a seminar on next-gen crop protection solutions organized by Ficci, an industry chamber, on 19 July in Delhi. Cytozyme, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a pioneer in microbial fermentation technologies for application in agriculture.

When we started no one understood about microbial fermentation and biotech concepts in commercial agriculture. It is a very conservative industry and one that has been dominated by seeds, fertilizer and agrochemicals.

What are the exciting possibilities in using this technology to help farmers produce higher quality and better yields?  We have a population that is estimated to reach 9.5 billion people and we have to find a way to produce 60 percent more food in the next 40 plus years. This is a monumental challenge. We have limited resources ─ land, water ─ and so the challenge needs to be based in multidisciplinary approach utilizing technology across the spectrum of agricultural production.

There are three basic categories in agricultural inputs: synthetic agrochemicals, which have a leading share in today’s agriculture,and the emerging areas of biologicals and bio-stimulants. These are based on natural solutions.

We control pests through agrochemicals. But how do we make the plant more resistant to stress, both abiotic and biotic?  That is where Cytozyme has been focussing on for decades.

We know the more stress a plant is under, the lower the yield. These stresses come in many forms: heat, drought, UV radiation, salinity in the soil and pest pressure.  The average impact on productivity because of drought stress is as much as 48 percent across seven crops we studied.

We have developed two basic areas of science around these technologies: MAC (metabolically active compounds) and CPS (crop protection support). When we started work 40 years ago in microbial fermentation and metabolides helping plants overcome these stresses we did not have a strict idea of the particular mode of action. Since then science and technology have caught up to  help plants battle these stresses at the molecular level or cellular level.

We have identified a large number of organisms which when fermented under very specific conditions produce a wide range of metabolides. None of our products contain living organisms, though the technology is derived in live microbial fermentation.

These metabolides migrate in and out of cells and we have learnt to control this process to come up with specific formulations. About four years ago we contracted with several leading universities in the US to drive in on what is the mode of action of this very complex biological process. We conducted a study of the full genome of the Arabidopsis plant. We were able to identify different categories of genes which are up- regulated or down-regulated substantially as the result of the application of our technologies.

Plants today, even with the best hybrids, produce around 24-25 percent of their genetic potential. A huge amount of that potential is not fully utilized because of various kinds of stresses. Any technology that helps release the unutilized potential translates into higher productivity and profitability.

When a plant is under stress it produces what we call ROS – reactive oxygen species. These ROS molecules can be very damaging to the cell. They break down the important cellular make up of the leaf and tissue of the plant.

How can we influence production or inhibition of ROSs? We exposed the Arabidopsis plant to very high temperatures (30 degrees centigrade for one one hour). We applied our product 24 hours before.  We developed a method to extract  chlorophyll from the plant and stain those cells that are negatively impacted. The level of damage in the untreated plant was significantly worse than in the treated plant. This gave us a very good indication that cellular damage was a result of these high stresses.

We conducted a test at the University of Utah where they have sophisticated drip irrigation capabilities to look at effects of drought on corn and soybean under zero irrigation (just rainfed), 50 percent irrigation and 100 percent irrigation. Where our products were applied there was a significant increase in incremental productivity: 14 percent (for corn) and 27 percent (for soybean) over untreated plants, with no irrigation, 2.5 percent and 11.3 percent improvement respectively with 50 percent irrigation and 10 percent and 6.4 percent respectively with 100 percent irrigation.

Crop protection support – this is another microbial fermentation technology that Cytozyme is in the midst of developing. We have seen significant up-regulation in those genes responsible for biotic stresses.  We have technologies in our portfolio to influence the plant’s resistance to biotic — fungal, bacterial and blight — stresses. These are non-GM technologies. We are not inserting genes. We are merely developing metabolides to highly up-regulate the plant’s natural defense mechanisms.

We tested our CPS technology on rice with sheath blight at the University of Texas. There was an 85 percent improvement with the application of CPS technology Vs 62 percent improvement with fungicide alone.  The second test was on soybean rust disease. We wanted to see whether there was yield contribution and disease suppression. With commercially available fungicide there was a 39 percent level of protection Vs 45 percent improvement when used along with CPS technology. This was incrementally 6 percent better with a 15 percent improvement in yield over the control. In much the same way at University of Florida we looked at bacterial leaf spot in tomato plants. We saw significant 39 percent improvement over untreated control and higher than 30 percent over the straight bacteria-cide control.

These trials indicate that agrochemicals are vital in controlling disease. But there are opportunities combining functionalities of traditional agrochemicals, both contact and systemic, with biological products that enhance a plant’s own natural ability to fight disease. This is the field of biologics that Cytozyme is investing considerable time and research in. It will continue to grow as a very viable and interesting segment of the crop protection industry.

(Top photo of Eric Baughman by Vivian Fernandes)

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