Joyn Bio, a joint agtech venture between synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks and Bayer, plans to open a research facility in California to speed up the development of its engineered microbes. The aim: fix nitrogen in soil for wheat and corn fields, reducing or even eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers.
Synthetic fertilizers have been a major reason for the massive boost to crop yields that agriculture has seen over the past century. But that growth has come at a cost —synthetic fertilizers can do harm to the health of the soil, and when excess fertilizer runs off into rivers and oceans, it can cause environmental harms such as toxic algae blooms.
This is where Joyn Bio steps in, taking advantage of the resources of its parent companies. Bayer has a library of dozens of microbes that are capable of colonizing entire corn or wheat plants, Joyn CEO Mike Miillie says. And Ginkgo Bioworks, a synthetic biology company that spun out of MIT, is capable of engineering those microbes to produce specific proteins. The combination, says Miillie, creates a possible alternative to chemical fertilizers—and other chemicals as well.
“You suddenly have a very easy way, almost a platform-type approach for delivering almost anything you can imagine to that plant,” he said. “You now have a whole alternative to spraying those crops with chemicals.”
It’s been about 18 months since Joyn was founded with a $100 million Series A round coming from its two parent companies. In that time, researchers at the company have been diligently working to engineer microbes that can be safely and effectively used with corn and wheat plants. Now, says Miillie, it’s time to put those new products to the test, which is where the new facility fits in.
Situated in Woodland, California, near Sacramento, Joyn’s new testing facility comprises about 12,500 square feet of office, lab and greenhouse space. It also sits on about 300 acres of land, making it possible to test Joyn’s microbes under field conditions, not just greenhouse conditions. The company expects to begin operations at the facility in May or June.
Once operations commence there, though, it will still take a while before any of Joyn’s products make it out into the commercial market. Even if all tests go well, it’s likely that it will take 3-4 years before any product is ready for market, with others taking 5-6 years of testing before they can be sold.