What’s Kool about Kula Bio? Transforming the economics and sustainability of soil, for starters.

December 21, 2020 |

Today, let’s look at an alternative to carpet-bombing Midwestern corn fields with around 150 pounds per acre of nitrogen fertilizer, in hopes that the plants will take up about half of that, en route to a big corn yield. 

Leaving aside the debate over what happens to runoff nitrogen as it enters the rivers of America — there’s the question of cost, and could we do better on cost? After all, the cost of nitrogen can head up to nearly 40 cents per pound, and the resulting $60 an acre cost for fertilizer inputs is a target that farmers and technologists look at with longing.

Along came Pivot Bio, which offers a microbe that interacts with the corn plant and fixes nitrogen, something that microbes have naturally done with soybeans for a long time. The company has achieved a billion-dollar valuation, we’ve heard, as a result.

One of the big questions about Pivot Bio’s technology for many observers was, would it impact the yield? Apparently not, yield actually has been on the rise in a number of the company’s trials. So, you win on cost, on yield, and on sustainability. Now, that’s a triple bottom-line that anyone can get behind.


It has occurred to a number of observers that there might be a sort of Pivot Plus Play to be made. That is, the kind of transformative benefits of nitrogen-fixing microbes, but without the microbes having to compete as aggressively with other microbes for soil carbon, for the energy in the soil.

After all, it’s not exactly like a free delicatessen under the soil, every bit of energy is already spoken for and, to introduce a new microbe into the mix, they have to effectively compete for energy, and in the end are taking it from the plant, and from other microbes.

The background on what’s down there

Marlon Winger, Jon Stika, and Derek Tilley of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service explain the problem and opportunity here:

Plants feed soil organisms that in return provide nutrients to the plants. Microbes break down existing organic matter or mineral soil, making nutrients more available to the plant. 

Mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, enchytraeids, and earthworms exude polysaccharides, glomalin, organic acids, and amino acids. These combine with exudates released by plant roots to work as glues to bind soil particles (sand, silt, and clay) into larger and larger aggregates. This forms the soil’s granular structure. Aggregated soil also provides pore spaces for larger organisms like protozoa, nematodes, enchytraeids, earthworms, insects, and mites to thrive. 

When soil habitat is undisturbed soil organisms burrow, shred residue, and create larger pore spaces. The result is a vast network of channels, nooks, and crannies that improve root growth as well as water and oxygen infiltration, allowing a diverse community of soil microbes to flourish. 

Arming the paratroopers

Think of soil microbes as paratroopers, for a moment. You can parachute them into enemy territory armed with weapons and no provisions, telling your mythical 82nd Airborne that they’ll have to forage for their food and water. 

Disaster could be the result. At a minimum, soldiers will need to forage using resources and time that could have been spent on shock attacks of the type that paratroopers are supposed to engage in. Worst case, the troops could run short on food and water, and be forced to surrender or at least fight in a weakened condition. 

That’s why we equip paratroopers with food.

So, when we parachute our carefully-engineered soil microbes into the soil on their nitrogen-fixing mission, why not equip them with food, er, an energy supply — for the same reasons we supply Hershey bars to the troops.

Enter Kula Bio

Enter a company called Kula Bio. No relation to the transformatively delicate wines of Kula Vineyards in the Paso Robles district of California. More about the company’s backstory is here — lots of Digesterati there, Pam Silver’s on the SAB, former Mascoma CEO Bill Brady is CEO.

Kula Bio’s nitrogen-fixers are dropped in to the soil with a supply pack of Kula Energy. Of course, we think of them as K-Rations, after the daily combat food ration distributed to airborne troops on WWII. Whatever you call it, it’s energy that can be obtained inexpensively, long before being deployed on a mission with a plant, energy that does not have to be obtained at the expense of another soil microbe.

And why, you ask, wouldn’t some other bullying soil microbe wander over and steal the food. Wouldn’t the microbe end up fighting over the food whether it brings its own or not?

Glad you asked? Technology lends a hand here. Only Kula Bio organisms can access the energy. It’s sort of like dropping in your microbes into a field of lactose-intolerant microbial competitors, equipped with a supply of whole milk. 

So, you get the idea. Our 82nd Airborne is equipped with a special food supply only they can use, and they parachute into a series of fields, on a mission to fix nitrogen. Only, the microbes are healthier because they have an assured food supply they are not distracted (energy budget-wise) by foraging activities. Theoretically, they fix more nitrogen, faster. Lower applications for the soil of external nitrogen, less cost, less runoff, more yield, more precision.

Thought you’d like this one. 

Check out the complete Kula Bio story here.

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