More than 18 months into a project that could help Singapore produce a decent amount of the food it consumes, scientists have recently found a way to quickly manufacture microbes that can be used to manufacture organic fertilisers and non-synthetic pesticides.
Singapore has set a target for a third of its produce to be grown locally by 2030. The country has been quickly embracing various methods of urban farming in a country where just 1% of land is given over to agriculture. It also imports about 90% of its food currently.
These urban farms include smallholders clustered in the northwest of the island, vertical and rooftop farms in high-rise city buildings and one-man allotments.
Kang Zhou, an associate professor at Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), Massachusetts Institute of Technology's only research enterprise outside the United States, hit on the biomolecular technology while his team was supporting colleagues working on increasing vegetable yields in farms in the city.
The scientists had been exploring microbial fermentation to make fertilisers, nutrients and non-synthetic pesticides in the form of small molecules, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), but the technology required to conduct the research has traditionally been expensive and highly wasteful. Often, just 1% of the customised material ordered from suppliers could be used in the process.
The new guanine/thymine DNA assembly technology Zhou’s team has developed stands to change the game and accelerate the pace of research into VOCs.
It significantly changes things by enabling genetic engineers to reuse materials through a simple method that defines their biological parts as standard DNA. Unlike previous attempts to create standardised materials, which have an accuracy of up to 50%, the SMART technology is able to reach an accuracy of close to 90%.
SMART’s interdisciplinary research group, DiSTAP, has been considering establishing its own startup companies to take it to the technology to market, though there is still much further to go in its development.
“The objective of this study was to create a technology that can engineer microbes faster and at a lower cost,” said Xiaoqiang Ma, a postdoctoral associate at SMART who has been working with Zhou.
“Current technology is expensive and time-consuming. Researchers have to order customised materials from suppliers which takes a while to arrive. As each material is customised, researchers have to re-order each time, which further delays and add costs to the production.”
As the work continues, the researchers are hoping to show real-world results for farmers who are limited by space and scale in tiny Singapore.
“We anticipate that the huge cost and time savings will enable the development of new fermentation processes that can manufacture green chemicals to make urban farming in Singapore more efficient and safer,” said Zhou.
“This technology is also applicable to all genetic engineering fields outside of agriculture, and we are actively looking at ways we can deploy it for easy access,” he added
If the work goes to plan, Singapore can expect more organic fertilisers that boost the rate of organic growth, and a raft of other non-synthetic products to follow. It is hoped that these will grow yields without increasing space given over to agriculture.
Food in Singapore is currently plentiful and inexpensive by world standards. Last year it headed the Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Food Security Index for the first time, scoring high on metrics such as affordability and availability. But as the world’s population grows, it will become increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity and rising prices.