Skip to Content
Climate change

Replacing fertilizer with plant probiotics could slash greenhouse gases

October 2, 2018

Pivot Bio just got a $70 million infusion from Bill Gates’s energy fund and other investors to launch its commercial product next year.

The science: The biotechnology company, based in Berkeley, California, is creating probiotics for plants. The firm’s researchers have identified microbes with a dormant ability to produce nitrogen, a crucial nutrient in synthetic fertilizer, and engineered them to reawaken and enhance it. For its initial product, Pivot Bio has created a liquid treatment for corn crops that can be applied when the seeds are planted.

The sell: In early field tests, patches treated with the microbes produce comparable yields to those relying on synthetic fertilizers. Pivot Bio’s pitch to farmers is that the product reduces work and complexity, because a single application takes less time than spraying multiple rounds of fertilizer.

The big picture: The larger concern is that manufacturing synthetic, nitrogen-based fertilizers produces a significant amount of greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. Excess fertilizer adds to the problem, too, because it decomposes into nitrous oxide, itself a potent greenhouse gas. Fertilizer runoff also pollutes waterways, which in the United States has contributed to massive algae blooms and “dead zones” in the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico.

“If we can start reducing the pollution tied to fertilizer, then we’re literally cleaning up the planet,” said Karsten Temme, the company’s chief executive, in an interview.

The backers: Developing a product that could address those issues helped Pivot Bio land funding from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the Bill Gates–backed $1 billion fund dedicated to advancing technologies that can curtail climate dangers.

Singapore investment firm Temasek also invested in the Series B round. Earlier backers included Monsanto Growth Ventures, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Next steps: In addition to supporting the commercial launch, Pivot Bio will use the funding to develop a pre-treated seed product as well as microbes for other crops, including rice and wheat. The company is initially focused on US farmers but plans to target markets in Brazil, Argentina, and Canada as well.

Deep Dive

Climate change

This CRISPR pioneer wants to capture more carbon with crops

New research at Jennifer Doudna's institute aims to create faster-growing, carbon-hungry plants using the gene-editing tool.

giant kelp underwater
giant kelp underwater

Running Tide is facing scientist departures and growing concerns over seaweed sinking for carbon removal

The venture-backed startup believes kelp could be a powerful tool to combat climate change. But some scientists fear the ecological risks on large scales.

biomass with Charm mobile unit in background
biomass with Charm mobile unit in background

Inside Charm Industrial’s big bet on corn stalks for carbon removal

The startup used plant matter and bio-oil to sequester thousands of tons of carbon. The question now is how reliable, scalable, and economical this approach will prove.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.