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Synbio and agriculture

Farmers in the US spent ~$10B in 2011 on petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizers, which account for ~1% of the world’s energy consumption. Not only are these fertilizers expensive and energy intensive, but the run-off from fertilizers makes its way into natural waterways, where it fertilizes blooms of algae that deplete oxygen and create vast “dead zones” where no fish or natural species can survive. To address this, researchers within Synberc and elsewhere are developing methods to reduce plants’ need for nitrogen fertilizers by enabling them to get or “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere. One kind of plant – legumes – already has this natural ability through the symbiotic bacteria found in their roots. Our goal is to transfer the gene pathway from the legume’s microbes directly into the cells of plants, or possibly into the root microbes of food crops like corn and cereals. To reach this goal requires the development of new tools and methods which, in addition to greatly benefiting agriculture and the environment, would be broadly applicable to the transfer of other useful pathways into new host organisms. The ultimate goal is to reduce energy use, increase food production, reduce land use, and increase farmers’ profits.