A seed grows in Boston

Some well-earned skepticism

That lack of understanding of what can be a very complicated relationship has left many farmers and scientists skeptical of anyone touting microbes as a quick fix. Beattie said it isn’t surprising to hear of a microbe that can increase growth by 10 percent. There are other labs claiming numbers much higher than that.

The question is whether what works in a lab and appears attractive in a research journal can translate to the field. It usually doesn’t. Jean-Michel Ané, who leads a lab studying plant-microbe symbiosis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he has found few plant probiotic products marketed to farmers to have a demonstrable effect.

“The problem is that all the products that I have seen so far have very limited and very variable effects when you test them in real field conditions,” Ané said. “Sorry to be so negative, but there is a lot of foo-foo dust sold to farmers these days that does not work.”

In Indigo’s grow room — a room tucked into the back of its office that’s so brightly lit by a ceiling crowded with full-spectrum lamps you need to wear sunglasses — it’s possible to see microbe-treated crops growing at varying rates after being subjected to different stressors.

In a greenhouse overlooking Boston’s Charles River, I examined strawberry plants subjected to a similar variety of tests. Some microbe-treated plants had grown larger and produced more flowers, which is linked to more strawberries. Another set didn’t fare any better than the control plants.

There is a lot of foo-foo dust sold to farmers these days that does not work.

— Jean-Michel Ané, researcher, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The first farmers using Indigo’s cotton product are halfway through their first growing season. While McClendon said he is reserving a verdict for the end of the growing season when he knows just how much cotton he can harvest, he sees signs the Indigo microbes are having a positive impact.

Indigo is wooing farmers with an unusual business model. Instead of requiring them to buy its microbe treatment upfront, it will likely collect around a third of the profit generated by farmers’ increased crop yield.

“Farmers who otherwise take years to try the product out are compelled to try it out in a big way from the beginning, because there’s essentially a really big upside in crop production and little downside,” McClendon said.

Perry assured me Indigo’s microbes are safe. And in a world where a 10 percent increase in yield is impressive, he isn’t too worried about creating a super plant. They’re annuals, anyway, which means they need to be replanted each year.

If Indigo cotton and wheat take off, it will put the company at the forefront of an industry that could grow immensely over the next decade. Indigo plans to innovate quickly. While a GMO product can take 10-15 years to gain approval, Indigo can develop and release a new plant probiotic within 2-3 years. The company is already planning to target new crops and regions.

The science is finally there to find microbes that can help plants, according to Beattie. The money to back research is arriving, too.

“We’ve only really understood the tip of the iceberg for all this time,” Beattie said. “Without looking, a few (microbes) were known. Now that we are looking, there’s a lot of potential for discovery.”

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