Exciting Enzymes

Mini microbes enhance soil health and boost nutrient uptake and crop yield.

Bayer’s Jennifer Riggs checks how corn responds to a seed treatment with an enzyme that increases microbial activity around the root, Image by Charles L. Harris / Bayer Ag

Dive below the soil surface, and you’ll find millions of microbes hard at work. Just like you, they do many different jobs. Some can cause crop disease, but the vast majority of microbes are laboring away to deliver minerals, vitamins, nitrogen and amino acids that feed and nourish plants. Another important job of microbes is to produce enzymes.

Scientists are just starting to unlock the potential of enzymes in crops, focusing on how they can improve yield, overall soil health and nutrient uptake. Research teams are also studying how they could be used to free up nutrients in the soil by breaking up complex nutrients into simpler forms that can be absorbed more easily by plants or microbes.

“Enzymes come with really high win rates,” says Katie Thompson, chief operating officer at Elemental Enzymes. “We’ve seen significant yield increases in a variety of crops with different types of enzymes.”

Enzymes are proteins, and among their many uses in agriculture, they make available nourishment for microbes. Their role is to speed up a specific chemical reaction. Enzymes work by converting one chemical to another chemical. Scientists are excited about enzymes because when they cause reactions, they’re not used up by the end result; they can make a reaction happen many times before they eventually degrade.

Enzymes already are successfully used in animal health. Often, they’re employed to increase nutrient efficiency and break down feed in the gut, so animals can grow bigger and faster with less feed and better nutrient absorption. Researchers think enzymes could produce similar results in corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and vegetables, including higher yields and more efficient nutrient uptake.

THE RIGHT FIT. “We are studying if enzymes can help process organic matter or convert some compounds to be insecticidal, nematicidal or fungicidal compounds in locations where they’re most needed,” Thompson says. “We are also looking at how they can stimulate a plant’s immune system for stress reduction or signal a specific action that you might want in a plant that could increase regrowth or nodulation.”

The process of figuring out what a specific enzyme does is the first challenge. Next is determining if it will work where needed.

“Each enzyme has a very specific mode of action, and we match that with where, when and how much action we want to occur to benefit the plant,” Thompson says.

Seed treatments, foliar and in-furrow applications are all being tested for enzyme delivery.

In general, enzymes aren’t very stable, but Elemental Enzymes has increased stability by anchoring enzymes on the outside of specific bacteria so they can’t be attacked by microbes for nourishment or degraded. This is important to increase the length of time they can work.

ENZYMES ON THE MARKET. Some enzymes already have applications in the crop market. For example, they are being used to break down high iron or salt content in the soil to make it more productive via microbe-to-microbe delivery. Enzymes are also being used to speed up the degradation of herbicides.

“Stability continues to be a problem, so a lot of a particular enzyme has to be out there to make it work,” points out Jennifer Riggs, product development manager with Bayer. “Some of the most successful enzymes use microbes to deliver enzymes, which, in turn, can build a higher microbial population and improve soil health.”

Bringing a next-generation seed treatment to market, the Bayer team considered how Poncho/VOTiVO could bring even more value to the grower. The team settled on adding complementary bacteria to its existing product that produce a significant amount of a specific enzyme.

“With Poncho/VOTiVO 2.0, we increase microbial activity around the root through an enzyme reaction that provides food to the native microbes, which then results in more nutrient availability,” Riggs explains. “Poncho/VOTiVO builds a larger root system, which helps the plant take those nutrients up more efficiently, and the partnering of our new bacteria improves soil health around the root system.”

Bayer is evaluating opportunities to expand their biologicals portfolio potentially with enzymes delivering a replacement for traditional pesticides or impacting soil health in other crops.


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