The Future of Seed Trait Technology Takes Shape

Innovative research and new technologies are expanding the Agrisure portfolio, providing potent solutions to many production challenges.

Can a carton of sour milk hold the key to higher corn yields? It can when it’s in the hands of researchers who never quit looking for ways to take corn traits to the next level.

“One of our researchers went on vacation for a week and accidentally left a carton of milk in his refrigerator in North Carolina,” says Eric Boudreau, Ph.D., head of trait projects for corn at Syngenta. “When he returned, he decided to study the bacterial strains in the sour milk instead of dumping it.”

The sour milk yielded a new strain of Bacillus called AB88 that secretes an insecticidal protein. The new insecticidal protein was named Vegetative Insecticidal Protein 3 (Vip3). Discovered in 1996, Vip3 led to the creation of the Agrisure Viptera® corn trait, which set a new standard in insect control.

“Before Agrisure Viptera, yield losses from lepidopteran [above-ground pests] were devastating,” says Boudreau, who notes that Agrisure Viptera controls above-ground insects, including corn borer, corn earworm, and many cutworm and armyworm species. “Agrisure Viptera marked a major step change in insect control in corn.”

This was just one of several important breakthroughs that have helped form the robust Agrisure® traits pipeline at Syngenta. Between 2005 and 2014, Syngenta launched six Agrisure traits. In addition to Agrisure Viptera, these traits included Agrisure Artesian® water-optimization technology for corn and Agrisure Duracade®, which offers a different mode of action for corn rootworm control. By early 2017, Syngenta had launched 11 new Agrisure trait stacks in 12 years.

“Curiosity is the driver of innovation,” says Boudreau, who notes that Syngenta is committed to delivering new trait technologies. “The sour milk example shows that solutions can come from the most unlikely places.”

In the quest for higher yield potential, Syngenta invests $1.3 billion globally on crop protection and seeds research and development every year. That translates into almost $3.5 million per day. All this effort is directed toward one key question: How can Syngenta sustainably increase the yield and profit potential of crops to advance agriculture around the world?

“It’s such a simple question with such a complex answer,” Boudreau says. “What we’re doing is more complicated than rocket science.”

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Simplifying the Complex

While growers are already reaping the rewards of the diverse Agrisure portfolio, Syngenta will seek to further expand the product offerings in the next five years with:

  • Improved Artesian™ hybrids. Consider Agrisure Artesian the A-list of high-performing corn hybrids. Containing multiple genes for season-long drought protection, Artesian hybrids offer a practical option to meet the water challenges of the 21st century. “The main benefit of Artesian hybrids is the consistency of performance,” says Duane Martin, Ph.D., commercial traits lead for Syngenta. “Their ability to help manage variability across microclimates and soil types far exceeds what we envisioned for the Artesian technology 10 years ago.”

    “We want Agrisure technologies to last a long time. Providing multiple modes of action helps delay insect resistance issues and preserve the durability of the traits.”

    Eric Boudreau
    Continuous improvement defines Artesian hybrids, thanks to research into alleles (variant forms of a gene) that builds on existing knowledge. In 2016, newly identified Wave II alleles helped give each new Artesian hybrid an even greater set of genes that help them manage water more efficiently. In the near future, Wave III alleles are expected to provide even more advanced Artesian hybrids; they’re expected to be available for planting in the 2019 growing season.

    “No other company has continued to develop water-optimization technology like Syngenta,” says Martin, who adds that Artesian hybrids are available in combination with exceptional insect control and herbicide-tolerant traits. “Syngenta continues to identify new Artesian genes that can help growers manage water use more efficiently.”
  • Advanced insect control. An eye on providing even better protection has led to the creation of Agrisure Viptera 3330 E-Z Refuge® and Agrisure Duracade 5332 E-Z Refuge, which, upon receipt of all necessary regulatory approvals, are anticipated to be available for the 2019 planting season. “These trait stacks are expected to provide at least two, if not three, different modes of action against above- and below-ground insects,” says Dirk Benson, Ph.D., head, seed product development, product selection for Syngenta.

    With three modes of action against many ear- and leaf-feeding insects, Agrisure Viptera 3330 E-Z Refuge will offer control on a broad range of above-ground pests. If below-ground insect control is needed, Agrisure Duracade 5332 E-Z Refuge will offer three modes of action against most above-ground insects, plus dual modes of action against yield-robbing corn rootworms.

    Providing more modes of action is smart management, Boudreau says. “We want Agrisure technologies to last a long time. Providing multiple modes of action helps delay insect resistance issues and preserve the durability of the traits.”
  • New molecular stacks. While developing more traits offers more options for growers, it creates a unique set of challenges. “With so many traits available, you can ‘clog’ the product development system,” Boudreau says. “But molecular stacking physically links the traits together, which allows them to go through the breeding process more easily.”

    Syngenta scientists’ work with molecular stack technology will pave the way for the next wave of products in the Agrisure traits portfolio post-2020. “By stacking individual traits on top of each other, you could have three to five traits in one hybrid,” Martin says. “Molecular stacking will allow Syngenta to develop new technologies more quickly and shorten the commercialization process.”

    The resulting trait stacks will offer increased convenience and more opportunities to protect the hybrids from damage that can occur throughout the season.

With all the existing and upcoming technologies in the Agrisure portfolio, expect there to be even more trait stacks, giving growers increased choice when selecting the technologies they truly need. “The Agrisure traits portfolio offers the best choice of trait packages in the industry, and there are ample options to select hybrids specific for each field,” Martin says. “By offering a variety of insect control options, growers can select what they need and put their trait dollars where they count the most.”

Endless Possibilities

Innovation never rests at Syngenta, as researchers continue to develop traits that help to manage growers’ most problematic insects and diseases, optimize water usage, and reduce destructive weeds by offering tolerance to herbicides. The end result is an increase in the potential to boost yields.

Innovative research and new technologies are expanding the Agrisure portfolio.

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“Our future offerings are so promising, in part, because we’re connecting a broader range of scientific disciplines—biotechnology, molecular biology, mathematics, statistics, analytics and more,” Benson says. “It’s fascinating to be at the forefront of innovation in agriculture.”

Keeping the focus on the grower is essential. “Molecular biologists, for example, are experts in their area, but they may not be as well-versed in crop production,” Martin says. “In many cases, my role is to help our researchers understand the needs of growers, so they can pursue the science that effectively tackles the agronomic challenges of the future.”

The possibilities are endless as technology continues to evolve rapidly, Boudreau says. “It’s an exciting time to help growers deploy new technologies to feed a growing world. We know we can do it right.”