Plant Breeding Research Spurs Innovation

Humble Weeds, Powerful Pedigrees

BASF plant breeders employ advanced technologies and an extensive network of breeding locations to bring new soybean varieties to the market. (Nick Kelley)

As global conditions such as extreme weather and wars threaten food security, seed genetic researchers aim to deliver sustainable and profitable solutions for corn and soybean growers.

The fundamentals of crop breeding -- create new genetic combinations, evaluate, select and advance through generations -- haven't changed. What's new are technologies applied at every step. Molecular breeding, artificial intelligence (AI), robust computational tools, drones and sensors allow geneticists and breeders to examine hundreds of traits and genomic data simultaneously to push forward only the best germplasm before any seeds hit the soil.

Breeders continue to cut product development time, but future advances with gene-editing tools such as CRISPR will shave more time off the current six- to eight-year development cycle. And, with the average product life cycle around three years, quicker grower adoption of new varieties and hybrids will benefit both the farm and the breeder.

These gene-by-gene breeding advancements are critical in improving farm sustainability by building better products that reduce growing-season risks.

Here's a look at how four of the largest corn and soybean breeding companies are building desired germplasm, testing seed and delivering it to you.

BASF

For the Xitavo Enlist E3 soybean portfolio, BASF plant breeders use advanced breeding technology such as DNA fingerprinting and predictive breeding models to assess the genetic potential of a single plant very early in the development phase.

"We spend more time than most in precommercial plots combing through the experimental varieties to identify candidates," says Monty Malone, soybean variety development lead for BASF. "We rely on an extensive trial network of breeding locations and input from our agronomic services team to bring the best genetics forward."

To produce the seed, BASF's Midwest soybean production manager Terry Garner says it's different from commercial soybean production. "We have a higher focus on pest management, crop rotation, soil temperature at planting, equipment cleaning and seed storage -- working closely with our seed growers to achieve a reliable supply of quality seed to meet our customers' needs," he says.

Variety performance data, including yield, appearance, agronomic characteristics, disease and pest tolerances, herbicide tolerances, harvestability and more is thoroughly analyzed during and after each season. "An extreme selection process determines which varieties earn a spot on the Xitavo Soybean team each year," adds Bill Backhaus, BASF Midwest agronomist.

BAYER

The breeding program at Bayer builds around three pillars: a strong foundation, smart operations and better decisions. "We've spent the last decade-plus figuring out the basics to create a robust foundation pool of global germplasm and library of genes needed to improve crop traits that farmers want," says Michael Kovach, hybrid product development lead at Bayer.

The smart operations pillar revolves around technology and processes. Reduced genotyping costs and artificial intelligence (AI) select the best crosses and seeds before they see the soil. Then, a 7-acre, climate-controlled greenhouse in Marana, Arizona, grows selected germplasm to test inbreds. This process repeats three to four times a year for faster hybrid development. Robotic seed-packaging warehouses precisely place seeds in cartridges by experiment type, then they are shipped to test and production fields around the globe.

Next-generation field equipment such as precision cartridge planters, drones, sensors, satellites and AI analysis of petabytes worth of performance and agronomic data drive the best hybrid selection. "All of this comes together to improve knowledge of product in each environment to achieve better hybrid advancement and field-placement decisions," Kovach says.

Bayer is beginning to incorporate insight from Climate FieldView with product and trait data using AI to produce tailored precision breeding solutions. "With 20 years of genomics data, we can make better decisions on germplasm to move products quicker to specific customer markets," says Tom Jury, North American head of breeding field testing.

CORTEVA

After more than a century, the Pioneer breeding program still divides into an early development stage and a late field-testing stage. Dramatically improved computational power and AI genomic data analysis technology drive breeder efficiency to move the best germplasm into early-stage testing and the best hybrids into late-stage trials.

"Our technology is replacing expensive early-stage testing, but we still believe side-by-side trials with farmers in later stages provide critical real-conditions data we can't predict on a computer," says Luis Verde, corn breeding lead, North America. "Talking to customers and our sales organization helps evaluate local needs. Like with the latest tar spot disease issue in corn, we put priorities on what genetics and traits help manage local issues to improve farmer yields and profitability."

Data from drones, sensors, robots and time-lapse images provide dramatic field plot research efficiency. Stand counts, ear and plant height, biomass, disease levels and water management provide data that Corteva collects weekly, if not daily.

"For example, today we can collect individual plant data without human error in a 20-acre plot in 20 minutes, which used to take a research crew all day," Verde says. "Software and AI analysis help advance the best products and provide data so we can inform farmers how hybrids react to conditions that can improve field placement."

Corteva agronomists support farmers by assisting them in developing plans, providing advice when water or nutrient deficiencies or pests arise, and helping them get the most of their harvest.

SYNGENTA

In corn, Syngenta cites a dramatic change in virtually every development process during the past five years -- from inbred creation and trait integration speed to precision testing and improved field placement.

"Data science and predictive analytics have greatly improved our advancement decisions before inbreds ever see a field," says Syngenta corn portfolio lead Drew Showalter. "Our Nampa, Idaho, trait conversion accelerator is helping bring traits like Duracade and Viptera into inbreds faster and more effectively."

With both soybeans and corn, the company is working toward a design-type model that strategically selects genetic crosses to produce an outcome that meets a target product profile for customers.

"Breeding is a long-cycle game where you need to accurately predict what farmers want in five to seven years to develop new varieties," says Ryan Fuller, soybean portfolio lead for Syngenta. "Listening to customers is helping us drive more successful products to the farm."

Delivering the right products at scale for customers is a necessary and detailed process at Syngenta. Working closely with sales for demand signals and knowing five-year averages by growing areas has built a good track record of seed delivery.

"We also build in some market opportunity that adjusts for Mother Nature events that shift demand," Fuller says.

THE FUTURE

These companies see a future where seed genetics become one part of a holistic prescriptive acre package. Some areas of a farm may benefit from short-stature, high-population corn. Other genetics may capture elite yields with multiple fungicide and nutrient applications. Disease- or insect-prone acres will get a tailored multitrait package. And new end-use corn and soybeans will feature prescriptions that drive food or fuel quality.

Extreme weather will continue to challenge crop production. Farm practices will shift toward more significant conservation, regenerative agriculture, reduced inputs and carbon sequestration. And, seed companies will continue to develop genetic packages that fit these environments and practices to sustain food security and grower success.

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