Technology puts bacteria to work

Karsten Temme, CEO of Pivot Bio, illustrates how microbes live in symbiosis with a corn plant's root system. This innovative technology is effective in fertilizing crops and increasing yields.

OAKLAND, Calif. — During the time Karsten Temme was studying biomedical engineering in Iowa he saw a need for farmers to have internet access to support their operations.

“I started a company to provide a wireless link to the internet, especially for markets that didn’t have cable or DSL,” he said. “Through this experience I gained an appreciation for the challenges growers face, including the prohibitive cost of fertilizer.”

After a chance meeting with a fellow Ph.D. student at the University of California-Berkeley, the two created a shared hypothesis: What if microbes could be re-programmed, like computer programs, to meet a specific need?

“We married our skillsets of microbiology, genetics, engineering and computer programming and founded Pivot Bio in 2011 to identify, characterize and fine-tune microbes to produce nitrogen on demand within plant roots,” he said.

The company uses what it calls ON (Optimized for Nutrients) Technology.

“Our patented process uses the crop’s own microbiome to produce nitrogen for the plant,” he said. “Decades of fertilizer use have caused this natural process to go dormant in the field. We’ve been able to reawaken and amplify the ability of these microbes to fix nitrogen into forms the plant can use.”

After years of research, study, testing and tweaking, he said the company has moved past the introductory phases and now has data to show that ON Technology is not only viable, but also effective in fertilizing crops, increasing yields and positively impacting the environment.

“Our ON Technology will initially be available for corn planting in spring 2018,” Temme said.

In the future, he plans to expand the technology to other crops.

ON Technology is applied through seed coatings or in-furrow at planting. The microbes work in synergy with the crop’s root system to deliver nitrogen during the growing season. This is ideal, he said, because it provides nitrogen when the crop needs it most — as the plant matures and grain develops.

“We’re aiming to produce over 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre,” Temme said. “This will allow farmers to use less fertilizer and avoid the time and expense of in-season side-dress applications.”

In approximately two years, the product will be offered to growers nationwide.

This year the company will expand to the development of microbes that will increase access to other nutrients, such as phosphorus and potassium, in wheat, sorghum and rice.

“Excess use of fossil-fuel derived nitrogen fertilizers is a world-wide problem that impacts both the sustainability of agricultural practices but also associated environments that are negatively impacted,” said Gary Stacey, a professor of plant science at the University of Missouri.

“However, any solutions to this problem must themselves be sustainable and, perhaps more importantly, protect crop yields, which ultimately control profitability,” he said. “Karsten Temme with Pivot Bio is seeking this type of solution by focusing on bacteria that promote plant growth while providing the nitrogen so essential for maintaining yield.

“Pivot Bio is at the vanguard of a worldwide phenomenon in which biologicals (e.g., bacteria) are being sought that can take the place of environmentally detrimental chemicals to support sustainable agriculture, including cropping practices widely practiced in California,” Stacey said.

Karsten Temme

Age: 38

Residence: Oakland, Calif.

Occupation: CEO, Pivot Bio

Education: BS and MS in biomedical engineering from the University of Iowa, Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-San Francisco.

Quote: “I have a passion for improving the productivity and sustainability of global agriculture by expanding access to innovative technologies.”

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