Hot take: Companies need Human Practices too

So, Ginkgo Bioworks and Beyer recently teamed-up to form company to develop beneficial microorganisms for plants, and their first target is nitrogen fixation. This is both the best and worst first target, multiple groups have worked on this problem for years and it is a difficult problem, but if they can get a bacterium with any effect out the door they will rip a large market share away from every other seed producer.

At first, I thought this was a weird team up, Gingko’s product line is almost exclusively production organisms. Yeast or E. coli grown in clean and standard fermentation tanks, optimized to produce one chemical or protein; not field ready organisms. Beyer comes in with a crop science division which I had never heard of. After a day of thinking though I figured out how they might click together. I think Beyer is walking into the deal with a bunch of samples and organisms, not to mention a HUGE merger with Monsanto which already has 80% of the U.S. corn market (and 90% soy market). Also, apparently Bayer has a seed coating group already (again, who knew?). Also, do you think they don’t update their websites because farmers respond better to older looking websites?

Back on topic: Nitrogen fixation will be an amazing development when it happens. Current production takes a lot of energy, is centralized, and, like antibiotics, produces a lot of undesirable side effects. For example, the blue-green algae blooms which plague my city. So, I’m initially open to any solution which makes our lakes better, but releasing GM’d bacteria into the soil violates a couple bright-line synbio norms.

I come from the iGEM side of Synbio, all making the world better, helping marginalized people, and working with stakeholders to develop a project. This view gets boiled down into “Human Practices” (or was it Policy and Practices? Get your shit together de Mora!) which I have worked with the Purdue iGEM team to get right multiple years in a row. Anticipating the unintended consequences of our work is like step one and my first thought when I think about these nitrogen-fixing bacteria is what happens when they get into the water ways? Currently nitrogen-fixing bacteria need anoxic (without oxygen) environments, what is more anoxic than an algae bloom? Are they going to put a kill switch into whatever organism they make to prevent it spreading beyond the field? What happens to natural ecosystems when they get exposed to these super fertilizers? We lob questions like these at high schoolers and college students who barely have results to back up their claims. Who is asking these questions of this company? Where is their human practices?

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