Advances in Corn Breeding

The corn breeders who develop products for the Channel® brand have a unique combination of technical skills, experience and a focus on understanding what matters to growers. In this article, we will shed some light on some of the key tools and strategies that allow them to react to market needs and deliver needed products quickly. Specifically, we will focus on three processes that have been accelerated by modern technology: identifying market needs, developing uniform products and integrating biotech traits.

Identifying Market Needs Quickly

A simple but important question every plant breeder must determine is what issues are limiting a grower’s production? This question drives the decision of what parental material breeders select to enter in the breeding pipeline as this will influence the selection of existing material for advancement to the next stage. Priorities for growers may take on the form of an emerging disease or the need to fill a gap within the seed portfolio. 

The first example, identifying a disease that is a key threat as early as possible can cut years off the process of developing new products. We can look at the new threat of tar spot in Illinois. In 2018, the corn industry was caught off guard when this new disease emerged. In northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, yield reductions approached triple digits due to tar spot. In the past, a breeder would have had to wait multiple years to confirm that this disease was in fact a threat and was here to stay. With advances in disease and environmental modeling tools available to breeders, they identified the threat and changed strategies instantly during the pipeline advancement processes in 2018.

The next example is identifying where we have a gap in the seed portfolio or identifying an existing product that needs to be replaced. Breeders need to anticipate or predict years in advance when a product is needed. They cannot wait for a product to fall behind competitors before developing a replacement strategy. One of the most important feedback systems is using the Climate FieldView™ platform. This platform brings vast amounts of grower and plot data into a data base that serves as a direct feedback line to the breeding organization, which allows them to act faster and address the regions that need products quickly. 

Developing Uniform Commercial Products

Corn products that are commercialized in the United States need to be uniform in order to register the product and to ensure a consistent grower experience. Historically, the process of creating uniform or true breeding lines relied on the process of inbreeding. Inbreeding involved selecting specific plants in the breeding nursery, self-pollinating those plants, and then growing out the progeny in a line or row the next year. The following year, off-types were discarded or rogued out and the remaining plants were self-pollinated again.

Today, breeders use a process called doubled haploid technology. Sometimes, this has been referred to as instant inbreeding. This technique and the genetic mechanisms have been known for years. The process of generating doubled haploid lines has historically been labor-intensive and had a low probability of success. By investing in scientific disciplines very different from traditional plant breeding, our breeding organization has essentially cracked the code to making doubled haploid technology the primary breeding methodology, thus speeding up the process of developing uniform inbreds and hybrids. Typically, creating a uniform and stable hybrid would take six to nine generations. Now, the same result can be achieved in as little as two generations, which in our multiseason processes, equates to less than a year.

Trait Integration

The third key process our breeders are focused on is integrating key biotechnology traits into a new hybrid or inbred. The goal of trait integration is to cross biotech traits, such as the events that comprise Trecepta® corn or SmartStax® corn, from donor parents into our conventional breeding material. This process can be sped up by starting material in the trait integration pipeline earlier and by making the conversion process as efficient as possible. The breeding organization has invested in the right technology and infrastructure to help ensure that fully traited products are not delayed by this complicated process. 

Predictive analytics allow breeders the ability to solve the challenge of identifying material earlier in the pipeline so it can enter the trait integration process quicker. Field data on products is limited in the early stages of the pipeline; however, predictive analytics and machine learning can identify the very small clues in data that predict eventual commercial success. The early stages of the breeding pipeline usually contain too many potential products to start everything on a trait integration path. Predictive analytics help breeders to sort out the most important genetics and what trait stacks are best paired with those genetics.

Advanced selection techniques such as seed chipping and generating genetic sequence data on every seed in the pipeline have allowed breeders to not only speed up the process of trait integration but also ensure that the “traited product” looks and performs just as expected. The process of seed chipping allows the breeder to fully characterize the genetic makeup or sequence of every seed planted in a nursery or greenhouse. This powerful information helps ensure that we are not wasting valuable space in winter nurseries or the automated greenhouses in Arizona with material that does not have a chance of becoming a commercial product (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 4. A new automated greenhouse in Marana, Arizona opened in March of 2020 for the purpose of developing seed corn products with advanced technologies. Figure 4. A new automated greenhouse in Marana, Arizona, opened in March of 2020 for the purpose of developing seed corn products with advanced technologies.
Managing Scale and Complexity

If this all sounds like a very complex process with many moving parts, that’s because it is very complicated. In order to manage all these moving parts, Channel plant breeders have support teams dedicated to logistics and automation. The investment in these tools and infrastructure has allowed the breeding organization to increase the size of the programs and speed up the process of developing commercially ready products (Figure 3). It gives our breeders more time to focus on understanding customer needs and characterizing product performance vs. managing operations.

The investments our breeding organization has made in data science, genetic selection and automation is what we refer to as Breeding 3.0 because it represents the next step forward in genetic gain, speed and serving our growers. These are just a few of the many tools that breeders use today to deliver products quickly. The next generation of tools is already under development, which include precision breeding and gene editing.

Figure 5. Marana, Arizona greenhouse under construction, which started in 2017. Figure 5. Marana, Arizona, greenhouse under construction, which started in 2017.
Figure 6. Left to Right: Marana, Arizona greenhouse, Climate FieldView™ platform mapping information, seed processing, drone observation, and new corn product. Figure 6. Left to Right: Marana, Arizona, greenhouse; Climate FieldView™ platform mapping information; seed processing; drone observation; and new corn product.

Jake Evans

Agronomist

Monsanto Company is a member of Excellence Through Stewardship® (ETS). Monsanto products are commercialized in accordance with ETS Product Launch Stewardship Guidance, and in compliance with Monsanto’s Policy for Commercialization of Biotechnology-Derived Plant Products in Commodity Crops. Commercialized products have been approved for import into key export markets with functioning regulatory systems. Any crop or material produced from this product can only be exported to, or used, processed or sold in countries where all necessary regulatory approvals have been granted. It is a violation of national and international law to move material containing biotech traits across boundaries into nations where import is not permitted. Growers should talk to their grain handler or product purchaser to confirm their buying position for this product. Excellence Through Stewardship® is a registered trademark of Excellence Through Stewardship.

ALWAYS READ AND FOLLOW PESTICIDE LABEL DIRECTIONS. B.t. products may not yet be registered in all states. Check with your seed brand representative for the registration status in your state.

IMPORTANT IRM INFORMATION: RIB Complete® corn blend products do not require the planting of a structured refuge except in the Cotton-Growing Area where corn earworm is a significant pest. See the IRM/Grower Guide for additional information. Always read and follow IRM requirements.

Performance may vary, from location to location and from year to year, as local growing, soil and weather conditions may vary. Growers should evaluate data from multiple locations and years whenever possible and should consider the impacts of these conditions on the grower’s fields.

Roundup Ready® 2 Technology contains genes that confer tolerance to glyphosate. Glyphosate will kill crops that are not tolerant to glyphosate. Insect control technology provided by Vip3A is utilized under license from Syngenta Crop Protection AG. Channel® and the Arrow Design® and Seedsmanship At Work® are registered trademarks of Channel Bio, LLC. Climate FieldView™ services provide estimates or recommendations based on models. These do not guarantee results. Consult your agronomist, commodities broker and other service professionals before making financial, risk management, and farming decisions. More information at http://www.climate.com/disclaimers. FieldView™ is a trademark of The Climate Corporation. Herculex® is a registered trademark of Dow AgroSciences LLC. Agrisure Viptera® is a registered trademark of a Syngenta group company. LibertyLink® and the Water Droplet Design® is a trademark of BASF Corporation. Respect the Refuge and Corn Design® and Respect the Refuge® are registered trademarks of National Corn Growers Association. Roundup Ready 2 Technology and Design™, Roundup Ready®, SmartStax® and Trecepta® are trademarks of Bayer Group. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners. ©2020 Bayer Group. All rights reserved.

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