A new seed treatment that enables crops to fix atmospheric nitrogen will be available to UK growers from this autumn. This launch represents the first commercialisation of the endophyte technologies from the University of Washington globally.

The story began along the banks of the Snoqualmie River in western Washington State, where two pioneer plant species thrive – poplar and willow, explains Prof Sharon Doty of University of Washington. They are able to colonise areas of very low nutrient content, which led scientists to believe they may be able to fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere. This was later confirmed in the lab and plants were also found to be have an enhanced ability to sequester phosphorus.

Over the past two decades Prof Doty has characterised these strains for their efficiency at making N and P bio-available and their ability to increase photosynthesis and water-use efficiency, as well as promoting healthy growth under stress conditions.

This academic research has been taken up by Intrinsyx Bio (USA), based at the NASA Ames Research Park, who are commercialising the technology because of the potential endophytes confer to crop production systems and for long term space travel.

“These endophytic microbes cause crop plants, grasses, ornamental plants and trees to fix nitrogen directly from the atmosphere into ammonia, which helps improve nutrient-use efficiency and supplements synthetic fertiliser requirements, increasing yield and quality,” explains Dr John Freeman, plant biogeochemist and chief science officer at Intrinsyx Bio.

Intrinsyx Bio first screened and then commercially deployed these endophyte strains after confirmation of their safety by full genome sequence analyses at the University of Washington.

“Our endophytes have been sent as seed treatments to the International Space Station for growing broccoli and rice in outer space,” he says, explaining the company supports crop experiments being carried out in the Space Station programme.

Unium Bioscience, after over three years of development, are able to offer this technology to UK growers which represents the first global opportunity to try TIROS, with foliar endophyte products currently in the development pipeline to follow.

“It’s a real breakthrough that will help growers manage their carbon footprint by increasing the nutrient-use efficiency of crops,” says John Haywood, director of Unium Bioscience.

“The selection process has identified the most efficient endophytes for fixing atmospheric nitrogen and for sequestering phosphorus from the soil. The data is compelling and will lead to improvements in how crops are fertilised.”

“These plant-microbe associations are known to be beneficial for germination and seedling establishment. Seed endophytic bacteria are found naturally in these early plant growth stages, but TIROS provides a combination of highly functional strains that wouldn’t normally be present to form additional associations with the host plant.”

John Haywood describes TIROS as a ‘back-up generator’ that’s running all the time the plant is growing. When nitrogen and other nutrients are limiting due to stress conditions, the endophytic bacteria within the plant tissues provide the nutrients to keep the plant going and then recover once conditions become more favourable.