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Fermentation expertise drives soil biotechnology

June 19, 2023
Agustín Murillo, sales manager for Alltech Crop Science (ACS)

Alltech has been an active participant in Congreso Microbioma, or the Microbiome Congress, since the first year it was held. Microbioma is an innovative scientific congress that promotes knowledge transfer and supports a more sustainable and productive agriculture model.

The time has come for biotechnology to address the challenges of 21st-century agriculture. After decades of research, the scientific community around the world can now confirm the enormous potential that could be realized by fostering soil health and promoting beneficial relationships between microorganisms and plants to achieve higher and better yields. Alltech Crop Science (ACS) takes this idea a step further with precision fermentation.

Soil biotechnology harnesses beneficial microorganisms to produce healthier and more sustainable food. As such, it has the potential to be one of the most beneficial tools for a new model of agriculture, allowing us to balance food security with environmental respect.

"There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world,” the famed author Victor Hugo once said, “and that is an idea whose time has come." Agustín Murillo, sales manager for Alltech Crop Science (ACS) in Iberia, drew on this quote and the idea behind it in his presentation at the annual Congreso Microbioma, or the Microbiome Congress, an international event that brought together more than 1,000 attendees from 32 countries in 2023 — including researchers, scientists, engineers, producers and biotechnology industry representatives — to discuss the present and future use of microorganisms in agriculture.

For scientists from around the world and pioneering companies like Alltech, this “idea whose time has come” is the result of decades of research on the concept of fostering soil health and promoting beneficial symbiotic relationships between microorganisms and plants to achieve higher and better yields. That research has established a comprehensive understanding of the soil microbiome — and, more specifically, the important roles that soil microorganisms play in nutrient cycling, disease suppression, symbiotic relationships, soil structure and bioremediation. These many functions highlight the major significance of soil microorganisms for sustainable agriculture and the optimization of crop productivity.

Over its 40-plus-year history, Alltech has conducted numerous studies and gained practical experience that now bolster its fermentation expertise, making it one of the most innovative and expert authorities on soil health and microbial diversity in the world. As a result, Alltech strives to develop products that foster more drought- or saline soil-resistant crops — as well as microorganism-based products that contribute to nitrogen fixation in the soil or phosphorus and potassium solubilization. These microorganisms are strong crop allies, optimizing nutrient absorption and utilization and promoting stronger and healthier plant growth.

Taking it a step further

Alltech’s pioneering research is now progressing with a new concept: precision fermentation.

The concept of precision fermentation refers to the cultivation and use of microorganisms (such as bacteria or fungi) through advanced biotechnological techniques to produce specific agricultural products. It involves designing and engineering beneficial microorganisms under a controlled fermentation process.

Precision fermentation offers several advantages over traditional agricultural methods. For example, it allows for the more efficient and sustainable production of high-value organic compounds, such as proteins, enzymes and other biochemicals.

“It's not just about multiplying beneficial microorganisms,” Murillo said in his presentation at Microbioma, “but also about promoting the generation of hormones, enzymes or secondary metabolisms that we know will benefit and improve crops when used in the field.”

A targeted fermentation process also allows producers to control different variables, such as temperature, time and heat source, enabling the microorganism to produce enzymes, for example, which are well-known to be essential in all plant nutrition cycles.

“We can, through precise fermentation, provide farmers around the globe with beneficial live microorganisms or microbial compounds that deliver both immediate and longer-lasting effects,” Murillo added.

Precision fermentation has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and the food industry by providing more sustainable and efficient methods for producing a wide range of agricultural products, thereby reducing the environmental impact of traditional farming while also addressing food security challenges and contributing to the development of a resource-efficient and sustainable food system. It could also transform the microorganism production process, enabling the development of biotechnological solutions that enhance crop nutrition, disease control, plant growth promotion, soil health and overall sustainability. All of these benefits would allow the agriculture industry to become more efficient, environmentally friendly and resilient to changing environmental conditions.

How the microbiome responds to microorganisms

The microbiome’s response to microorganisms is highly dynamic and can vary depending on numerous factors, including the characteristics of the introduced microorganisms, the specific environment and the existing microbial composition. Understanding these responses is crucial for comprehending the dynamics of microbiomes and their implications in numerous fields, including human health, agriculture and environmental sustainability.

When a new microorganism is inoculated into the soil, one of the most important next steps is to examine the enzymatic activity as a response of the overall soil microbiome to that inoculation. Monitoring and managing enzymatic activities is an objective indicator of microbiological activity.

Soil enzymatic activity can support more optimal soil fertility, improved nutrient cycling, enhanced disease suppression and the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices. With this in mind, gaining a better understanding of this concept is crucial for being able to adequately assess soil health, nutrient availability and overall crop productivity.

Selecting the right microbes: A headhunting process

As illustrated above, the rigorous and precise multiplication of beneficial microorganisms is crucial when it comes to taking care of the health of our soils.

However, the selection of these microorganisms is just as important. This crucial preliminary work could be compared to headhunting, argued Pedro Palazón, CEO of Ideagro, the Research&Development arm of Alltech Crop Science, in his presentation at Microbioma.

“You first define what you need and what you are looking for through a selection process where you search for the candidate, interview them to assess their qualities and how they can contribute to your team, and finally incorporate and develop them,” he explained.

The microorganism selection process emphasizes the importance of conducting targeted selection to obtain a new microorganism with specific capabilities and understanding its mode of action and potential effects. The entire process is conducted through lab- and fieldwork, all of which aims to obtain objective, quantifiable and replicable results — along with indicators of the microorganism’s mode of action. The selection process must be precise and requires time and investment "to obtain a stable, effective and guaranteed product for use,” Palazón said.

The interpretation of the results of this work is essential, and Ideagro achieves this through its own algorithm, which analyzes more than 12,000 samples from different crops, soil types and climatic seasons.

“We observe microorganisms for their effects as biofertilizers, biostimulants, bioprotectors, bioremediators, or how they enhance the nutraceutical properties of food,” Palazón explained.

Having already been engaged in the study of this topic for years, Alltech Crop Science and its family of companies, including Ideagro, is leveraging its fermentation expertise to meticulously select and multiply microorganisms. Undertaking this work has equipped the company with a comprehensive knowledge of the wide range of microorganisms that exist, laying the foundation for collaboration with producers to foster a more sustainable and productive future for agriculture.