The agricultural industry spends tons of money on artificial means to revive the soil, but an all-natural solution may already exist: beneficial microbes that have evolved to thrive in extreme environments. Puna Biowhich raised a $3.7 million seed round, traps and cultivates these extremophiles, putting them to work in milder climates where their plant-help processes are in overdrive — no genetic modification necessary.
It’s kind of a rule in the world of biotech that whatever you try to do, nature is already doing it, and probably better than you ever could. So while we’ve seen modified microbes put to work in agriculture, it’s more an augmentation of their existing, almost miraculous, ability to supply growing plants with crucial nutrients. And Puna’s thesis is that modification with the right organisms is unnecessary.
“Our extremophiles are used to living with few nutrients; they evolved over approximately 2.5 billion years to optimize the absorption of nutrients such as nitrogen or phosphorus,” explains co-founder and CEO Franco Martínez Levis on behalf of his team. “For some traits, they show new genes, or in other words, new biosynthetic pathways. For others, the copy number of the genes is higher compared to non-extremophilic microorganisms, making their activity more efficient.”
Multiple copies of a gene can amplify the natural processes these microbes already perform — something that fellow microbial farming startup Pivot Bio showed with its modified organisms. In this case, however, it is not even necessary to activate latent genes or modify the processes. These critters are already at peak performance, reliably producing nitrogen, phosphorus or performing other tasks at rates or under conditions that local microbes disagree or tire quickly. This means that even depleted soil can harbor happy bacteria, as they are used to even more difficult climates.
“What we found is similar to what happens when an athlete trains at a high altitude,” Levis said. But for these bacteria (although archaea, fungi and yeasts are also present in their collection) there is more than just thin air to build their character. For example, an organism that has evolved to live happily in salty, mineral-rich waters will be different from one that lives in a super-arid desert at high altitudes — such as “La Puna” in the Andes, after which the company is named.
“They’re very difficult to isolate,” Levis noted. “You have to go 4,000 meters above sea level, you have to know just the right place and time – you don’t just need scientists, you need adventurers. We have a big advantage because one of my co-founders has published over 150 articles on extremophiles – in many places where we find these, she has found them. She is invited to explore different places around the world.”
That co-founder is Elisa Violeta Bertini, who is conducting these bioprospects in several locations, most recently in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, to locate and isolate interesting new microfauna. Under an international agreement called the Nagoya Protocol, organisms found and examined in this way are granted something like a patent, allowing the institution, host country and researcher to use them exclusively. So Bertini (and the two other co-founders, Carolina Belfiore and María Eugenia Farías, all PhDs) has collaborated with universities and research organizations around the world to not only write tons of papers about these fascinating organisms, but to add them to Puna’s library. with beneficial microbes.
However, Levis was quick to add that they do more than just sprinkle bacterial fairy dust on crops. The company has developed and actually patented the method for growing, combining and applying these special strains to seed stock.
This comes with two important guarantees: first, farmers don’t have to change the way they buy, plant or treat seeds. Especially in the US, where farmers often buy pre-treated stock, Puna has made sure that everything works as it did before.
And secondly, these extremophiles will not take over and outnumber the existing and perfectly benign microbes already present in the soil.
“What we found in some of our studies were synergies between these [i.e. native or commonly used] beneficial microbes and the addition of our microbes,” Levis said. “You’re really putting a very small population of microbes in the soil, and because they stay very close to the plant, it doesn’t really affect the rest of the population.”
It seems intuitive that a bacterium producing free nitrogen or phosphorus under one set of soil and climate conditions could do so completely differently than another bacterium under completely different conditions. So the two types of organisms can combine and perhaps even synergize their effects when they function at the same time.
The $3.7 million starting round was led by At One Ventures and Builders VC, with participation from SP Ventures and Air Capital, as well as existing investors IndieBio (SOSV), GLOCAL and Grid Exponential.
Levis said the first step the company will take with this cash infusion is to launch their soybean treatment in Argentina, then expand to Brazil and the US, which together account for 80 percent of the market. The company will also invest in further R&D (there are many more microbes to test out) and new facilities, including in North Carolina. They hope to take their approach to wheat and corn, bringing unmodified crops to the performance level of genetically modified varieties.