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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A startup is using the tools of synthetic biology to reduce the pollution involved in large-scale agriculture.

The big picture: We face two major challenges around farming: how to feed a still-growing global population, and how to do so without ruining the environment. Advances in synthetic biology could help us do both.

How it works: Joyn Bio, a joint venture between synthetic biology leader Ginkgo Bioworks and life sciences giant Bayer, is experimenting with engineering microbes that could help replace the synthetic fertilizer and chemicals used in conventional farming.

  • The company is focusing first on developing custom microbes that could fix nitrogen in the soil to feed growing cereal crops like corn, what Joyn Bio CEO Michael Miille calls the "Holy Grail of agriculture."

Background: Plants need nitrogen to grow efficiently, but there's not enough naturally in soil to support the crops needed to feed a global population of nearly 8 billion people.

Details: Joyn Bio identifies natural microbes in the soil that show promise in fixing nitrogen and then "engineers them to perform at an entirely different level," says Miille.

  • The company aims to engineer microbes that can fix nitrogen efficiently enough that synthetic fertilizer use could be cut by 30–50% without affecting crop yield.
  • Miille says that currently, Joyn Bio's engineered microbes are efficient enough to reduce fertilizer use by 10% or so, though the company still needs to overcome regulatory hurdles and consumer acceptance before it could reach the marketplace.
"Agriculture needs innovation to be successful. The status quo is not going to get us there."
— Michael Miille

Go deeper

Updated 38 mins ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

2 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.