Monday 11 April 2016

Monsanto goes elegant

Tree huggers love to hate Monsanto because they have made a shed-load of money out of clever solutions to agribiological problems.  First they commercialised, as Roundup, glyphosate, a simple chemical which interfered with the activity of the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase [don't try to pronounce  that while drunk]. The upshot of the interference was that the plant couldn't make tyrosine, phenylalanine or tryptophan three of the 20 amino acids that all living things use to make proteins. So they stopped growing. It was very effective against weeds which are normally super-good at growing rapidly. The other asset was that glyphosate was rapidly and efficiently broken down by the soil bacteria - typically with a half-life of about 50 days. Applied to a field in February, it killed all other plants to make it ready for planting soya or corn in April or May. Roundup was immensely successful and made billions in sales for Monsanto.  It is still selling well despite being 20 years off patent and competing with cheaper knock-offs.

That was handy but they took the idea a step further by genetically modifying crop plants so that they were Roundup-ready.  These Monsanto proprietary varieties had been enhanced by incorporating, from bacteria, the enzymes that broke down glyphosate, so they could be planted at the same time as the Roundup was applied and survived the killing because they were effectively immune. Tree-huggers had a fit because these plants were now genetically modified GM and so the spawn od Satan. Something like 135,000 tonnes of the stuff were sold in the USA alone in 2012. 5% of the total surface area of California, including urban sprawl and vertical sierras is thoroughly impregnated with Roundup and growing Clifornia's GM bounty: almonds, peaches, melons, cherries and sweetcorn. There have been suggestions that it is a human carcinogen, but the evidence is sufficiently iffy that you may take it with a pinch of salt.  The real downside of Monsanto is not its medical effects but the rapacity of Monsanto's marketing and legal department. It becomes very difficult to grow corn or soya of any variety but roundup-ready and this is relentlessly reducing the genetic diversity of key crop plants; not only in the US but in the Third World as well.

Now they've moved on to monetize the microbiological world of the soil so that farmers won't have to lurry fertiliser and pesticides onto their fields to grow enough food to pay off the loans on their massive tractors.  Monsanto have deep pockets and can, like multinational medical drug companies, invest millions to make billions. Over the last 5 years, in consortium with another company Novozymes, Monsanto have carried out the most humongous field trial of plant-growth promoting microbes. 2000 different species of bacteria and fungi have been grown in the lab and pasted onto the seeds of corn and soya. The seeds were then planted out on a total of 500,000 different plots in dozens of states. across a huge swathe of the US Midwest.  Each experimental plot was paired with a control plot sown with unimpregnated seed.  As with a thousand false leads being rejected to bring a new drug to market, most of the tested microbes had no significant effect on the yield of the crops. But in 5/2000 cases, there seems to be significantly more return.  Those 5 are being taken forward for further trials.  Monsanto hopes to bring this super-seed to market in 2017. The idea is not new. Nitrogen fixing rhizobium bacteria were identified in the root nodules of pea and bean plants as long ago as 1888.  But since Fritz Haber [boo hiss, he's behind you!!] made ammonia so cheap, the business model for agriculture has been to put out tonnes of white pellets and hope that the additional nutrients will generate more crops. The excess nitrogen has washed off into watercourses with disastrous environmental consequences.  But recently it has become increasingly apparent that the additional nitrates alter the balance in the microbial flora  of the soil adversely affecting natural productivity and locking farmers in to the purchased ammonium nitrate model.

Because of the business model of developing a marketable microbial additive, this brute-force approach is limited by only including things that grow on petri dishes.  An even more elegant solution to discovering microbes-of-usefulness, without that constraint, was the discovery and isolation of Eleftheria terrae, which was blobbed last year.

It is not without irony that among the quickest people to appreciate this natural fertility has been Monsanto who have a cunning plan to turn 'green' into 'greenback'.  Curse as you want to, but you have to admire their dedication to their shareholders.

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