TerraMax’s lab team drives discovery of bacteria’s capacity to aid agriculture
When you walk into TerraMax’s laboratory, bright lights illuminate two large rooms. In one room, the wet room, lab staff prepare reagents and growth media. Cabinets store chemical reagents in carefully organized containers. TerraMax director of research Molly Tillman describes it as a sort of kitchen.
“We’re always preparing things for bacteria to eat and grow in here,” says Tillman.
The bacteria are the powerful components of TerraMax’s microbial inoculants that provide nitrogen-fixing services for crops that result in healthier plants and higher yields.
The other large room is the lab’s dry area. Large lab benches hold stacks of petri dishes where staff can look at bacterial growth and count colonies. Large incubators with precision temperature control provide optimal conditions for bacteria to grow. Smaller rooms off to the side have autoclaves to sterilize equipment and laminar flow hoods where staff can work under sterile conditions.
“We have four laminar flow hoods, and we always have people working in there,” says Tillman. “Whether they’re planning, mixing components or setting up experiments, they get a lot of use.”
Fermentation systems help staff conduct exact comparisons of bacterial growth, and a UV-vis spectrophotometer quantifies the amount of light specific analyzing chemicals absorb. While specialized equipment is necessary for TerraMax to test and develop its products, the tech is not the lab’s greatest asset.
TerraMax’s lab generates Beck’s PFR Proven products and tests new ideas because of the dynamic lab team. Lab staff have a diversity of backgrounds.
“Most of our staff have a background in biology,” says Tillman. “But we have a diverse group in terms of their interests, what brought them to TerraMax, and why they get excited about this kind of lab work.”
Some staff are intrigued by the mechanisms of microbial physiology and want to delve into the interior workings of how bacteria metabolize and function. Others have interests at a much larger scale.
“They’re interested in big-picture issues like environmental sustainability and agricultural efficiency,” Tillman says. “They’re concerned with how we feed the world and do it sustainably. And then we have people whose interests are everywhere in between. The way our team is structured, we have all the pieces of the pipeline in place, from fundamentals to field applications.”
With this structure, staff focus primarily on tweaking formulations and gaining a better understanding of how bacteria work. On the larger-scale side of things, one group member is the field trial coordinator overseeing and coordinating real-world application trials for TerraMax products.
The excitement of discovery and idea sharing
While everyone might have different research interests or reasons for joining the TerraMax team, each person is excited about new discoveries and possibilities.
“There’s so much potential in these microbes that have different functions, and so much of that we haven’t yet explored,” says Tillman. “We’re well equipped to not only do the lab component of finding out what these functions are that might be useful for growers but also to move that quickly into the field and see how it affects plant productivity and yield.”
Exploration and discovery are fundamental parts of the team’s ethos. “We have this sense that anything is possible,” says Tillman. “We’re open to new ideas, and there’s always room for creativity. People can take pride in what they do, bring their own ideas and get excited because we do so many interesting things.”
Ideas might come from recently published scientific literature or from talking to other scientists in the field. TerraMax partners with various universities, and the team attends conferences to connect with other industry professionals. For what the lab team can accomplish together, Tillman says, “the sky’s the limit.”