Better Living Through … Biology?

This article by TechAccel CEO Michael Helmstetter, Ph.D., was first published Oct. 5, 2020, at Forbes.


Consider the lowly microbe.

Once it was considered a yucky bit of unwanted living matter, something unclean, unhealthy – a scourge to be killed off for sanitary purposes. Germs, bacteria, fungi or viruses, were all   microbial living organisms that caused diseases, spoilage, fermentation or decay.

Microbes (or microorganisms) were understood to be all around us. Starting in the 1670s with Anton van Leeuwenhoek and his microscope, scientists have been exploring and documenting the unseen microorganic world in ever more detail. We now have categorized single-cell varieties, multicellular varieties and clustered-cell varieties, in all shapes and sizes.

And science has come to an almost grudging respect for microbes, understanding that microbes and their environment, the microbiome, are truly omnipresent at a staggering scale and level of diversity. The developing body of knowledge got a boost in 2008 when the National Institutes of Health launched the Human Microbiome Project. This work was further accelerated with the widespread use of new gene editing technology, revealing secrets of the microbiota genome.

We have come to see a critical role in the circle of life for microbes – an understanding that at least part of “us” is “them.” Or as Merlin Sheldrake put it, in his brilliant book The Entangled Life: “We all inhabit bodies that we share with a multitude of microbes without which we could not grow, behave and reproduce as we do.” Further, it’s no longer clear where “we” begin and end: we are not biologically self-sufficient, we rely on those organisms.

So, should we be tending the microbial environment (human, animal, soil) rather than trying to eradicate it? Can healthier microbes make for healthier animals, with lessened or perhaps no antibiotics at all? Can we harness these symbiotic microorganisms to behave differently, to further enhance crops? In exploring these questions, the microbe – in plants, soil, food, insect and animal guts and even in our own guts – has now become one of the hottest areas for innovation and investment in ag tech and animal health.


Two Major Signposts

One signal that the microbiome was heating up in agtech and animal health was the recent announcementthat Royal DSM, a respected high-science global company, would acquire Biomin, a producer of probiotic feed additives as alternatives to antibiotics. Biomin (part of the Erber Group) has patented technology in protections against mycotyoxins, the fungal contaminants in animal feed protection. This acquisition of the Erber group overnight gave Royal DSM a multifaceted product development pipeline and revenue-producing products. It showed the world that there’s confidence in the science of microbiome management.

A second signal comes from other players in Big Ag. When names like ADM and Cargill start placing bets on microbial research and introducing new products, you can bet the business cases behind the investments are purposeful and solid. Cargill Health Technologies, for example, recently expanded its microbial product development with Eagle Genomics’ data platform, a move expected to product new “functional foods.” ADM Ventures invested in Sustainable Bioproducts, a startup using unique fermentation techniques to develop edible proteins. Just a few years back, the idea of funding development of extremophile organisms living in volcanic springs would’ve met with polite smiles and closed doors in Big Ag.

We’ve been monitoring the area for quite a while, as (full disclosure) we too are making investments in products that interact with microbial environments: including our subsidiary RNAissance Ag LLC, focusing on biopesticide development, which has an insect microbiome twist to it, and our investment in EpiBiome, which was acquired by Locus Biosciences in 2018.  


Why now?

One reason for the current investment interest is the fervent desire to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal health, and the restrictions prohibiting subtherapeutic levels of antibiotic use for animal growth. Add to this the growing evidence that enhanced gut health plays a role in avoiding antibiotics. Over the past decade, new tools in gene editing have uncovered the mechanics of microbiology in nutrition, pathogen resistance, immune systems, digestion and other bodily functions – even behaviors (see the emerging field of neuromicrobiology).

We see more and more concentrated research in the gut microbiome; for example, the Purdue University Animal Microbiome Lab, where research focuses on antibiotic resistance to “disentangle” the interactions between host animal, microbiota and gut metabolites in nutrition and pathogen resistance. The research team is exploring if the microbiome can be trained or manipulated to improve animal nutrition and overall health, and to keep an animal pathogen-free.

An equally hot area is the soil microbiome. Consider the engineering of microbes at Joyn Bio (funded by Bayer and Gingko Bioworks) and the development of microbial nitrogen-fixing soil additives from Pivot Bio, which secured $100 million in Series C funding (led by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures). Other companies of note include the behemoth Indigo Ag, with microbials for cereals, soybeans, corn, rice and cotton and a $360 million capital raise in August, and, approaching the soil biome from a data deep-dive, Trace Genomics.

Further, investors see that consumers have already embraced the concept of tending to their microbiomes – witness the profusion of products like functional foods, yeast supplements, probiotics, prebiotics, fermented health drinks like kombucha, skincare and beauty products, aids for mental health and acuity. Venture capital has taken note, with more than $600 million invested in microbiome companies in 2016. The surge isn’t expected to decline as the broadly defined probiotics market, encompassing human, animal and agriculture products, is projected to reach $57 billion by 2022 in one analysis; in another, the ag microbial market alone is projected at $11B by 2025. 

Covid-19 had a market impact here, too, in the form of increased awareness and enhancing the opportunity for products in microbial control solutions.


The yet unknown

There are caution signals, too. For example, some of the earliest microbial products are selected because they are easy to produce in large scale fermenters and production facilities – not necessarily because benefits are proven in all applications. And there is a challenge in repeatability when every animal and every acre of soil is different. It’s hard to apply standards across live bacterial products and even harder to make them work within a multitude of variability. We’re still learning about complex interactions; sometimes, introducing opportunistic microbes might yield unintended consequences.

Another caution comes from the sheer volume of noise in the market, described as the “Wild West of microbiome science,” in one review in Nature. Many of the new products offer carefully phrased descriptions skirting around benefits proven and implied, such as in the profusion of over-the-counter health and skincare probiotic products.

With cautions noted, however, I posit this “Wild West” is still worth exploring. Where science is untangling complexity and providing clear pathways to specific outcomes, there’s an opportunity for improved animal health, starting with antibiotic avoidance and better nutrient uptake. The same is true for soil health and developing stronger, more resilient crops. The first Green Revolution relied on chemistry; it’s not hard to see that we are entering a new era of better living through biology.


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