Israeli-developed ‘fancy fungus’ helps plants grow
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Israeli-developed ‘fancy fungus’ helps plants grow

Mycorrhiza is a secret sauce that can help many crops thrive. An Israeli firm has developed a way to use it more effectively

Groundwork BioAg's mycorrhizal fungi mixed in with ordinary soil. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Groundwork BioAg's mycorrhizal fungi mixed in with ordinary soil. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Among humans, “fungus” is a scary word, but in the plant world, fungi are more than welcome — particularly mycorrhizae, “good” fungi that attach themselves to the roots of plants and help them grow and thrive.

Modern agricultural methods have not been kind to mycorrhizae: Pesticides kill them off; and modern methods of tilling and harvesting uproot them.

Which is a shame, according to Israeli agritech start-up Groundwork BioAg. Mycorrhizae, say company researchers, effectively extend plant roots using long microscopic filaments called hyphae, increasing the root-system surface area by a factor of up to 1,000. This “secondary root system” absorbs valuable nutrients (and water) that otherwise are simply unavailable to the plant. Restoring the mycorrhizae, according to the start-up, will help to increase yields, to restore depleted soil, and even to reduce the need for pesticides.

Groundwork bases these claims on two decades of research by Israel’s Volcani Center — the nation’s agricultural research organization located in Beit Dagan — as well as on field experiments that “demonstrated double-digit yield increases in several crops, including corn, bell pepper, sunflower and banana. Groundwork’s mycorrhizal inoculants are highly concentrated, pure and vigorous, and thus able to reach efficacy rates that are sufficient for mainstream agricultural products,” according to the company.

The start-up has signed an exclusive global license agreement to develop, produce and commercialize the mycorrhizal strains isolated and bred at Volcani. The agreement also includes exclusive rights to proprietary production methods that were developed at the center over the last two decades.

The deal was helped along by venture capital firm ICV. Jack Levy, one of the partners, said that “Groundwork poses a compelling investment opportunity, because they have effectively bypassed the long and expensive growth curve of a typical agro-biotech venture, by licensing a mature technology to produce a unique product with sustainable competitive advantage.”

“Green revolution” farming — the term refers to the application of modern technology, including the development of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation to significantly increase crop yields — is credited with helping to feed hundreds of millions. But it has had its downside, too; most of the techniques have been used to develop monoculture (single crop) farming, reducing biodiversity in many areas, and resulting in, among other things, water scarcity and increased vulnerability to pests.

But while these methods have helped develop the industrial farming system — and its biggest crops, such as soybeans — it’s been less than ideal for a wide range of fruits and vegetables classified as “obligate mycotrophs” — which are dependent on mycorrhizae for healthy growth — including olives, carrots, and many strains of corn.

Unfortunately, research shows, restoring mycorrhizae to the soil doesn’t always work, and a large part of the Volcani research has involved finding the right combination of nutrients that will effectively help plants grow, and the most effective delivery system to ensure the nutrients get to the plant.

After some 20 years of research, Volcani has developed a “designer” mycorrhiza, which attaches itself to the roots of obligate mycotrophs, as well as a proprietary method of application to ensure that they “stick” once they are installed in the soil.

“Groundwork poses a compelling investment opportunity, because they have effectively bypassed the long and expensive growth curve of a typical agro-biotech venture, by licensing a mature technology to produce a unique product with sustainable competitive advantage,” said company CEO Dr. Yossi Kofman. “Mycorrhizal fungi have been known to improve crop yields and to repel soil-borne pathogens for decades. Such products have thus far been limited to niche markets, however, due to the challenges in producing mycorrhizal inoculants in high concentration. With the Institute’s technology, Groundwork is set to change this paradigm and to bring mycorrhiza to mainstream agriculture.”

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