The fungi and bacteria that live inside plants are doing a lot more than hitching a ride. Those tiny creatures can influence how well plants grow, helping them absorb nutrients and boosting their ability to survive extreme weather.
One Boston company thinks it can alter that microscopic mix to create super crops that can thrive in stressful conditions. And investors are paying attention, staking Indigo Agriculture Inc. with a fresh financing round of $100 million.
The investment, announced Thursday, will bankroll research projects and hiring at Indigo, which recently moved into a 65,000-square-foot facility at the former Hood dairy plant in Charlestown.
The company has planted its first crop, a type of cotton that requires less water than conventional cousins, on more than 50,000 acres in the United States. It expects to introduce a variety of water-efficient wheat later this year.
Although its exact methods are confidential, Indigo said it creates new blends of naturally occurring microbes that can influence how plants grow. Those microorganisms aren’t modified before they’re applied to a seed, setting the company apart from crop improvements based on genetic engineering or chemical treatments, chief executive David Perry said.
“Nobody orders more herbicide with their salad,” Perry said. “We have the potential to change that paradigm, where we’re both improving the farmer’s profits and doing it in a way that’s better for the consumer and the planet.”
The company said its special combinations of microorganisms have coaxed 10 percent more cotton from plants in private tests “under targeted stress conditions,” including a lack of water. Indigo focused on water efficiency with its first plants because of increasing demands on worldwide water supplies and a lack of competitive products in conventional agriculture, Perry said.
“There’s no chemical that you can spray on a plant that makes it perform better with less water,” he said.
But, as Perry acknowledged, Indigo has plenty to prove. Evaluating the startup’s scientific claims is difficult because, as a private company, Indigo hasn’t submitted its research to peer-reviewed journals for checking by outside researchers.
While Indigo’s claims can’t be independently verified, it wouldn’t be surprising to see microbe-treated seeds improve crop yields in drought conditions, said Christer Jansson, who is a plant scientist at the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Scientists think microbes could also be useful in growing better biofuels or storing carbon dioxide emissions in the soil, Jansson said.
But the research remains at very early stages, he added.
“We don’t know exactly how the plant-microbe interactions occur — what signals come from the plant, what signals come from the microorganism,” Jansson said. “There is a large, large knowledge gap in our understanding here.”
And Tarah S. Sullivan, an assistant professor at Washington State University, questioned how much Indigo will charge for its innovations, especially given the benefit advanced crops could have in poor areas.
“This kind of thing is going to be the most useful in developing nations, where they don’t have money for fertilizers,” Sullivan said. “We’re going to need it everywhere to feed the planet. But in developing nations, they don’t have access to the kinds of things we have here.”
Indigo hasn’t disclosed pricing yet, but has said it would only charge farmers for using its plants if their crop yields increase.
Indigo’s expansion also comes amid greater consumer skepticism toward industrial and scientifically modified food products.
Sales of organic products — mostly food — have grown from less than $20 billion in 2006 to $43.3 billion in 2015, according to the Organic Trade Association. Meanwhile, Congress recently approved legislation mandating national labeling of food with genetically modified ingredients. Those standards would not apply to Indigo’s plants, Perry said.
The Alaska Permanent Fund, which manages that state’s oil royalties, led the investment in Indigo. It was joined by previous investors, including Cambridge’s Flagship Ventures, which incubated Indigo and led previous fund-raising rounds totaling $56 million.
The company has about 80 employees, and expects to end the year with more than 100, Perry said.Curt Woodward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.