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Puna Bio’s Extreme Microbial Zoo Survives and Restores Degraded Soil – Technology Flow

The agriculture industry spends tons of money on artificial ways to revitalize soil, but a completely natural solution may already exist: beneficial microbes that have evolved to thrive in extreme climates. Puna Bio, which has raised a $3.7 million seed round, captures and cultivates these extrophiles and puts them to work in mild climates, where their plant-supporting processes work in overdrive — no genetic modification required.

It’s kind of a rule in the biotech world that whatever you’re trying to do, nature already does it, and probably better than you can. So while we’ve seen modified microbes at work in agriculture, it’s only to augment their existing, almost-uncanny ability to provide vital nutrients to growing plants. And Puna’s thesis is that modification is redundant with proper organisms.

“Our extrophiles are used to living on low amounts of nutrients; They have evolved for about 2.5 billion years to optimize the uptake of nutrients such as nitrogen or phosphorus,” explains co-founder and CEO Franco Martínez Levis on behalf of his team. “For some traits, they show novel genes or, in other words, novel biosynthetic pathways. For others, the copy number of genes is higher compared to non-extremophile microbes, which makes their activity more efficient.

Multiple copies of a gene can amplify the natural processes these microbes already acquire – as fellow microbial agriculture startup Pivot Bio has shown with its modified organisms. However, in this case, there is no need to activate latent genes or even adjust processes. These critters are already operating at peak performance, reliably producing nitrogen, phosphorus, or other tasks at rates or conditions where native microbes are quickly overwhelmed or exhausted. This means that even depleted soil can host happy bacteria. more difficult environments.

“We discovered what happens when an athlete trains at high altitude,” Lewis said. But these bacteria (though archaea, fungi, and yeasts are among their collection) need more than just thin air to build their character. For example, an organism that has evolved to live happily in brackish, mineral-rich water is different than one that lives in an ultra-dry desert like “La Puna” in the Andes, after which the company is named. .

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An aerial photo of a stromatolite, or biologically deposited mineral, and where it was found.

“It’s hard for them to be alone,” Lewis notes. “You need to go 4,000 meters above sea level, you need to know the exact right place and time – you don’t just need scientists, you need adventurers. We have a big advantage that one of my co-founders has published more than 150 papers on extremophiles – the most places where we find these, she She gets invited to explore different places in the world.

That co-founder, Elisa Violetta Bertini, conducts these bioprospections in various locations, most recently Utah’s Great Salt Lake, to identify and isolate interesting new microfauna. Under an international agreement called the Nagoya Protocol, organisms discovered and researched in this way receive something like a patent, allowing the organization, the host country and the researcher to use them exclusively. So Bertini (and two other co-founders, Carolina Belfiore and María Eugenia Farias, who all happen to have PhDs) have not only written tons of papers about these fascinating creatures, but are working with universities and research institutes around the world to add to them. Puna’s Library of Useful Microorganisms.

Lewis is quick to add, however, that they do more than sprinkle bacterial wonder dust on crops. The company developed and actually patented a method of harvesting, combining and applying these special strains to seed stock.

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A Puna Bio employee weighs seeds at left and another examines seedlings in a greenhouse.

This comes with two important guarantees: First, farmers do not need to change the way they buy, plant or treat seeds. Especially in the US, farmers often buy pre-treated stock, taking care to keep everything working as before.

And secondly, these extrophiles are not taking over and overpowering existing and perfectly benign microbes in the soil.

“What we’ve actually found in some of our trials are synergies between these [i.e. native or commonly used] “The addition of beneficial microbes and our microbes,” Lewis said. “You’re putting a really small population of microbes in the soil, and they’re so close to the plant that it doesn’t affect the rest of the population.”

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There they are – the bacteria in question, located between the microscopic crenellations of the root fiber.

A bacteria that produces free nitrogen or phosphorus under certain soil and atmospheric conditions may be completely different from how another bacterium does under completely different conditions. So the two types of organisms can combine and possibly coordinate their effects when acting simultaneously.

At One Ventures and Builders VC led the $3.7 million seed round with participation from SP Ventures and Air Capital, as well as existing investors IndieBio (SOSV), GLOCAL and Grid Exponential.

The company’s first move with this cash infusion will be to start their soybean treatment in Argentina, then expand to Brazil and the US, which between the three have an 80 percent market share, Lewis said. The company will also invest in further R&D (there are many microbes to test) and new facilities, including one in North Carolina. They hope to bring their approach to wheat and corn, bringing unmodified crops up to the performance level of GM strains.

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