Collage of researchers in lab and cotton

There’s more to a lush green plant than meets the eye. Armies of tiny organisms called microbes live on and in leaves, stems, and roots. They help plants absorb nutrients, fight disease, and endure stresses like drought.

Now, a biotech startup called Indigo Agriculture is harnessing microbes to help farmers increase crop yields. The company collects microbes from plants around the world and identifies which ones help in drought conditions. For example, some microbes help plants retain water or stimulate root growth.

Indigo makes seed coatings using those microbes, which enter the plant’s tissue as it grows. Last year, the company launched a microbe-coated cotton seed.

Marquez: “The results were very encouraging. We saw on average eleven percent increase in yield in west Texas, our target area.”

That’s Luis Marquez, senior scientist at Indigo. As droughts and extreme heat make growing food harder, he says there’s a need to develop crops that can thrive in these conditions.

Perhaps microbes, nature’s own time-tested tools, can provide a sustainable way to do so.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.
Image graphic: Created by David McCarthy. Photos courtesy of Indigo Agriculture.

Eileen Mignoni is a South Florida-based visual journalist who has been working on stories about science, the environment, and energy for nearly 10 years. In addition to her work at Yale Climate Connections,...