Various molecular techniques produce higher yields and more resistance.

To generate more food for a growing population, scientists make the most of molecular biology. “When looking at global agriculture,” says Johan Botterman, head of product research in the bioscience division of Bayer CropScience, “it’s all about improving productivity and stress tolerance, and developing seeds adapted for growing in different geographic regions.” Today’s most advanced science carries agriculture closer to these goals.

Bayer CropScience use many molecular techniques
Scientists at Bayer CropScience use many molecular techniques to enhance the yield of many crops, including cotton. (Source: Bayer CropScience)

To get such a collection of capabilities in plants, a seed needs various traits. As an example, Botterman points out that herbicide-tolerance traits in crops provide farmers with increasing convenience in weed management. The trend is to move to products with a blend of several traits, or agrochemicals. “We have a mix of technologies,” he says, “so a farmer can change weed-management practices instead of always using the same product.” Bayer CropScience has several herbicide-tolerant traits and is in the process of developing seeds with these traits—offering flexibility to the cotton, corn, and soybean farmers.

Souping Up Some Seeds
To identify and select genes that enhance a crop’s productivity, Pioneer developed its Accelerated Yield Technology (AYT) System from a proprietary mix of molecular breeding approaches. For example, Pioneer brand Y Series soybeans come from this technology. As explained by John Arbuckle, research director, global marker technologies at Pioneer: “We combine offensive traits, like yield, and defensive traits, like resistance to pests.” After launching this series in 2008, 65% of Pioneer’s current soybean brands were created with AYT.

The key to combining offensive and defensive traits comes from keeping them balanced. “We need to insure that our customers don’t have to worry about pests, but not at the expense of yield potential,” Arbuckle says.

Syngenta Biotechnology also aims molecular techniques at seeds. Simon Warner, senior manager for technology strategy and integration at Syngenta, points out that researchers can now put together the right genes in a plant to get the desired traits. That’s what Syngenta scientists did to develop Agrisure Artesian corn. “It’s draught tolerant and retains yield under water stress,” Warner says.

In addition, Syngenta used gene-related technology to develop Agrisure Viptera corn. “This corn is resistant to a broad range of insects,” Warner says.

Today’s technologies for improved crops, though, go beyond yield and resistance. For instance, crops now impact other areas of biotechnology beyond food, such as biofuels. That’s why Syngenta scientists developed Enogen corn for dry-grind ethanol mills. “Around 20 percent of all corn is converted into ethanol,” Warner says. With conventional corn, the starch is removed, converted to sugar and fermented to ethanol, which requires enzymes. Enogen already contains the needed enzymes. “It saves the purchase of the enzymes,” Warner says, “and it requires less water and chemicals to make the needed pH changes.” He adds, “Mills can make the ethanol faster because the enzymes work so fast.”

Fluidigm 96.96 Dynamic Array integrated fluidic circuit
The Fluidigm 96.96 Dynamic Array integrated fluidic circuit can be used to explore most any step in the food chain. (Source: Fluidigm)

Tricked Out Technology
About five years ago, researchers at Agilent Technologies decided to explore metabolomics, and the search carried them to Oliver Fiehn’s expertise in gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) and rice provided by Pamela Ronald’s laboratory, both at the University of California, Davis. Working together, this company-academia collaboration explored what makes this rice susceptible to a bacterial blight, which destroys half of the world’s rice crop every year. “This blight turns the rice leaf from green to yellow, and it basically wilts away,” says Theodore Sana, PhD, a senior scientist in integrated biology applications at Agilent. By combining Agilent’s liquid chromatography/MS, Fiehn’s GC/MS and Ronald’s rice knowledge, this team unveiled many aspects of rice metabolism, which ultimately led Ronald to a blight-related peptide. “Now, she can do some nice tailored experiments,” Sana says.

To dig out the genetic markers linked to specific traits, says Gajus Worthington—president, CEO, and cofounder of Fluidigm, “You need incredibly high throughput and incredibly fast turnaround times at very low cost.” By using microfluidics on chips, Worthington and his colleagues can explore 100 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in 100 samples in just a couple hours. Worthington adds, “With our technology, that just takes a couple of minutes of hands-on time. Also, the reagent consumption is very low.”

The Fluidigm technology, Worthington says, “can be applied to anything in the food chain.” For example, it’s been used to track Alaskan salmon as they return to breed and to keep chickens genetically diverse.

So from biofuels to spawning salmon, molecular techniques plow out new ways to get more from nature’s bounty. In short, biotech is redesigning the barnyard and beyond.