Power Traits

New technologies redefine what it means to grow more corn.
Power Traits
"Game-changing" is a term that often punctuates discussions about the most recent trait offerings from Syngenta - and for good reason. These traits, including Agrisure Duracade, Agrisure Artesian® and Enogen®, are enabling farmers to grow more corn, while bolstering the company's leadership position in corn insect control, water optimization and energy solutions. Combating the destructive corn rootworm, providing season-long drought protection and improving the efficiency of dry-grind ethanol production are among the many benefits of these traits. And behind each technology is a series of breakthrough moments for the scientists and product leads who helped bring it to growers.

Battling the Billion-Dollar Bug

Hope Hart, team leader for the product safety group at Syngenta, remembers her game-changing moment vividly, when years of research in the lab were validated in a corn rootworm–infested field near Bloomington, Ill. After shaking a stalk of the control corn plant, Hart, who was a scientist in the insect control group at the time, watched as it fell listlessly to the ground. "All the roots had been chewed away," she says. But the stalk of corn with the Agrisure Duracade trait, containing the active protein Hart helped discover, held firm.

It was in 1999 when Hart, together with the Syngenta biostress traits group led by Eric Chen, Ph.D., began experimenting with the active protein (mCry3A) in the first-generation corn rootworm trait from Syngenta (Agrisure® RW) to determine if it could be effective against additional pests. What the team found instead was a unique protein, eCry3.1Ab. And while it wasn't effective against the broader spectrum of pests the team initially hoped to target, it proved to be extremely effective against corn rootworm in a different manner than the mCry3A protein. When the larva ingests the Agrisure Duracade corn, the eCry3.1Ab protein in the corn cells binds to specific protein receptors in the gut of the larva, resulting in the formation of a hole in the insect's gut membrane.

Even though its larvae are microscopic, the corn rootworm is the most destructive insect in the history of U.S. corn production. Its remarkable adaptability has amazed scientists - and frustrated growers. Management practices once considered foolproof, such as crop rotation, have proved futile in regions where corn rootworm variants, which overwinter in fields and survive on non-corn crops, have emerged.

As Jill Wheeler, a Syngenta product lead for commercial traits, explains, corn rootworm is "a condition to be managed - not a problem to be solved," which is why a new mode of action like the Agrisure Duracade trait has become so necessary. "The industry has never seen this level of efficacy in a corn rootworm trait," Wheeler says, referring to a USDA study that reports a 99.79 percent reduction of adult beetle emergence in Agrisure Duracade corn - higher than any current rootworm trait on the market.1 In addition, the launch of a trait with technology preservation in mind is a first; Agrisure Duracade, available to growers in 2014, will always be paired with the Agrisure RW trait to provide two modes of action against corn rootworm.

For long-term management of corn rootworms, Syngenta also has introduced science-based agronomic recommendations that will help mitigate risk and maximize crop productivity.

Rethinking Water

When hybrids with Agrisure Artesian water-optimization technology were planted in 1,107 in-field trials last year, no one knew that the summer of 2012 would become synonymous with the worst drought in decades.

Duane Martin, Ph.D., a Syngenta product lead for commercial traits, witnessed the extent of the drought's devastation while driving between Indianapolis and central Illinois, as the fields flanking Interstate 74 were parched and dry. "The conditions were horrible," he says, recalling how he visited five fields and was unable to find a single ear of corn. It wasn't until he arrived at his destination - a plot containing hybrids with Agrisure Artesian technology - that he finally walked beside rows of fully developed corn.

Data from these and other 2012 plots showed that under severe and extreme drought conditions,2 hybrids with Agrisure Artesian technology produced 16.8 percent higher yields compared to the plot average. In cases of extreme drought conditions, the hybrids produced 48.4 percent higher yields compared to the plot average.

The 2013 season marks the official commercial launch of hybrids with Agrisure Artesian technology, accounting for 500,000 acres of corn across 25 states. Because it is widely adapted across yield environments, Agrisure Artesian is engineered into hybrids suitable for varying geographies - extending far beyond the Corn Belt and areas most commonly associated with irrigated corn production.

Wayne Fithian, Syngenta product lead for technical traits, was integral in its development. "I felt strongly that all farmers would benefit from improved yield under drought - not just the limited-irrigation and dry-land acres," he says.

And what if there isn't a drought? It's a question that Martin has heard many times, and his answer is always the same: Agrisure Artesian technology is only engineered in the best corn hybrids, and it doesn't take a drought to realize the benefits. "It goes back to the fact that our commitment is to water optimization - not just drought tolerance," he says. "Agrisure Artesian technology chips away at environmental factors like moisture stress, helping growers gain control of inconsistent crop production."

Ushering in a New Frontier

Jack Bernens, Enogen marketing and stakeholder relations manager at Syngenta, is more than familiar with bringing input traits to market. It was Bernens who launched the Agrisure traits product line, introducing growers to the Agrisure GT, Agrisure RW and Agrisure CB/LL traits, which feature best-in-class herbicide tolerance and pest control. In recent years, however, Bernens has had a different focus - launching the first biotech corn output trait designed to enhance the efficiency of dry-grind ethanol production.

Hybrids with the innovative Enogen trait contain a gene derived from deep-sea microorganisms that thrive in high temperatures and various pH levels. When heated, the gene causes the corn to produce alpha amylase, an enzyme that is typically added in liquid form at the outset of the ethanol production process. The difference between the enzyme delivered by Enogen corn and many liquid enzymes is that it turns the consistency of the slurry "from oatmeal to lemonade," says Sarah Greener, Enogen marketing specialist at Syngenta. This breakthrough not only eliminates the cost of adding liquid enzymes during ethanol production, but drives dramatic improvements in process efficiency, ethanol yield, throughput and profitability while saving energy and water.

Growers under contract in the immediate vicinity of the ethanol plant sell their Enogen grain directly to the plant for a premium price (40 cents per bushel on average). Syngenta helps facilitate this contract to make sure proper stewardship and commercial agreements are honored.

"I call it a win-win-win," Bernens says of the Enogen corn production contract, which helps put dollars usually spent on liquid enzymes in the farmer's pocket. "It's a win for the grower, a win for the ethanol plant and a win for the local community."

In 2013, Enogen corn will account for more than 65,000 acres. With 40 percent of the nation's corn slated for ethanol production, the growth potential for Enogen technology is almost limitless. "When we look at the renewable fuels space, corn is a very important player," says David Witherspoon, head of Enogen at Syngenta. "And with Enogen, we're in a category all our own."

Reflecting on the company's rich history of bringing innovative technologies to market, Bernens points to the current seeds portfolio as evidence that Syngenta is still at the forefront of developing game-changing traits. "We are the only company that has the full complement of input traits, while introducing such an impactful output trait," he says.

In Pursuit of Cleaner Soybean Fields

Sometimes, the development of novel trait solutions requires the resources and efforts of more than one company. A new soybean product featuring tolerance to multiple herbicides is one such instance.

To help growers in their ongoing battle against problematic weeds, Syngenta has partnered with Bayer CropScience to develop a trait that will provide tolerance to mesotrione, glufosinate and isoxaflutole (MGI) - the active ingredients in Callisto®, Liberty® and Balance® herbicides, respectively.

Today weed control in soybeans is no longer easy, says Brett Miller, technical product lead for Syngenta. "Because of weed resistance, a grower can't adopt any single technology or strategy to solve the weed problem," he says. "With MGI herbicide-tolerant soybeans, growers will have another important tool to manage weeds - and with meaningful residual control and application flexibility."

Syngenta and Bayer CropScience have submitted an application for approval to various regulatory authorities, and Miller anticipates that MGI herbicide-tolerant soybeans will be available to growers during the latter part of this decade. "We believe this trait will give growers greater fl exibility in determining the best, most sustainable herbicide program for their fields," he says.