The latest data technologies are helping scientists tackle the threat to the soil microbiome, stabilise the earth’s climate and restore ecosystems. Anthony Finbow, a pioneer in applying network science to biology, explains how climate change scientists, soil experts and agri-manufacturers are benefiting from microbiome knowledge discovery and analytics.
Over the past century, farming methods based on using fertilizer to optimise nitrogen in plants have delivered higher yields and consistent harvests. They have succeeded in reducing production costs, leading to cheaper food—but at a high cost to the environment. The price we will pay for modern agricultural practices could include the collapse of soil biodiversity. There are terrifying forecasts that there may be only 60 harvests left in the world’s soils because they have been so depleted.
At microscopic scale, the nano ecosystem of the soil is facing an unprecedented threat. This ecosystem plays an important part in carbon capture. Trees capture carbon monoxide, which is then transmitted through to microbes in the soil, where it is captured. This microbial community, the microbiome, is key to any efforts to reverse the effects of the climate crisis. It’s also key to delivering the food required for the world’s fast-growing population. By regenerating the soil microbiome, we can stabilise the earth’s climate and restore ecosystems.
Data technologies drive insight
There is a pressing need for an in-depth understanding of microorganisms’ role and their interactions both with each other, with the host environment (the crop), and with the active ingredients of agri-chemicals. This relies on the ability to be able to extract insight from large amounts of biological data.
Microsoft has predicted that the food industry “has not even scratched the surface” of microbiome knowledge. Sophisticated technology, applied to a wide range of scientific data, is driving discovery and innovation. The impact on human and animal health will be significant. Network science and data technologies such as graph databases and AI-based analytics allow everyone from climate change scientists, soil experts, and agri-manufacturers to benefit from microbiome knowledge discovery and analytics.
Intelligent data analytics technologies can uncover new correlations and insights from complex, multi-dimensional data. Automated systems can explore data relationships that are not detectable by humans alone. This is delivering discoveries about soil biology and how to farm more sustainably.
Pioneering organisations are taking action on their findings, for example, by engineering microbes to fix more nitrogen to plant roots to help the plants grow more effectively. Other organisations are applying plant microbiomes to increase crop yields and improve the salt and drought tolerance of crops. Soil microbiomes can be applied as bio-fertilizers for soils, directly addressing the challenge of nitrogen leaching.
Biodegradable plastics, generated using precision fermentation techniques using selected microbes, can be pressed into useful service to provide circuit-board materials, manufactured to remain stable through their life. These materials also degrade very rapidly and appropriately after their useful life.
Bill Gates believes that understanding the microbiome will be “as big a breakthrough as anything else we will do over the next two decades.” This new generation of agri-tech, driven by advances in data science and AI, promises to be a game-changer for the environmental and sustainability movement. It will also transform the agriculture and food growing industries and ensure global food security.
Anthony Finbow is Chief Executive Officer at Eagle Genomics Ltd, a UK-based pioneer in applying network science to biology linked to the microbiome. There, he and his team are working with five of the top ten household and personal care companies in the world to create and launch new products that work in harmony with the human and ecological microbiome.
 Hussain, S. S., Mehnaz, S. & Siddique, K. H. M. in Plant Microbiome: Stress Response. Microorganisms for Sustainability, Vol. 5 (eds Egamberdieva, D. & Ahmad, P.) 21–43 (Springer, 2018).
 Itelima, J., Bang, W., Sila, M., Onyimba, I. & Egbere, O. J. Microbiol. Biotechnol. Rep. 2, 22–28 (2018).
The company, headquartered in Cambridge, UK, is a pioneer in applying network science to biology – particularly linked to the microbiome. Its award-winning AI-augmented knowledge discovery and analytics platform, e[datascientist]™, helps companies looking to innovate with next-generation food, personal care, cosmetics and agritech products, supported by science. The platform harnesses the latest graph technology, and Microsoft’s advanced machine learning and cognitive services.