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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

Biden extends mask mandates for travelers into 2022

President Biden delivers remarks at the White House on Dec. 1. Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images

President Biden will announce new testing protocols for international travelers on Thursday and extend masking requirements through March as the U.S. prepares to fight the Omicron variant this winter, according to senior administration officials.

Driving the news: The U.S. will tighten pre-departure testing protocols starting early next week by requiring all inbound international travelers to take COVID-19 tests within one day of their departure rather than three.

55 mins ago - Health

America probably won't lead the effort to understand Omicron

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The race to figure out just how dangerous the Omicron variant is will likely be a global effort, but some experts are skeptical that the U.S. will play a dominant role.

Why it matters: The CDC has repeatedly come under fire for inadequate data collection throughout the pandemic — and figuring out how to respond to Omicron requires a lot of data that doesn't currently exist.

U.S. faces urgent anti-hacker crisis

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The Biden administration is accelerating efforts to fill nearly 600,000 vacant cybersecurity positions in the public and private sectors bogging down efforts to protect digital infrastructure.

Why it matters: Following a deluge of ransomware attacks targeting critical government and corporate infrastructure this year, clogs in the talent pipeline are leaving federal, cash-strapped local governments and Big Business even more susceptible to hacking.