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Mighty Farming Microbes

Mighty Farming Microbes

What if farmers, instead of picking up some agricultural chemicals at their local dealer, picked up a load of agricultural microbes instead?

It's something to contemplate, because some big names in the pesticide business — like Bayer and Monsanto — are putting money behind attempts to turn soil microbes into tools that farmers can use to give their crops a boost.

It's a symptom of the soaring interest in the ways microbes affect all of life. In our bodies, they help fight off disease. In the soil, they help deliver nutrients to plants, and perhaps much more.

The most direct way to take advantage of microbes in farming — an approach that's been around for decades, in fact — is to deploy them as weapons against insects or weeds.

Pam Marrone, founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, in Davis, Calif., has been spent most of her professional life looking for such microbial pesticides and bringing them to market.

She shows me a few of her newest candidates: colonies of microorganisms growing in little round petri dishes. Some are fuzzy; some are slimy. Marrone thinks they're beautiful. "They're all different colors," she points out. "You've got orange, blue, purple, black, boring tan and magenta."