Agrisure Viptera Has Revolutionized Above-Ground Insect Control in Corn

The creativity and perseverance of Syngenta scientists led to the discovery of the Vip3A protein in Agrisure Viptera.
Young corn plants thrive at the Syngenta Advanced Crop Lab in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
Young corn plants thrive at the Syngenta Advanced Crop Lab in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
When Thomas Edison asserted that he did not fail in his attempts to discover the light bulb but instead found 10,000 ways that didn’t work, he was explaining the importance of failure on the road of innovation. For the Syngenta scientists behind the Agrisure Viptera® trait and the discovery of its unique Vip3A protein, the story is the same: A group of people understood that an environment of creative freedom and openness to failure could produce a truly remarkable technology. And that is exactly what happened.

According to David O’Reilly, Ph.D., resistance management lead of research and development (R&D) at Syngenta, it was the creativity of the team and commitment shown by project lead Greg Warren that led directly to the discovery of the Vip3A protein-the heart of Agrisure Viptera.

An Unmet Need

In the early 1990s, the only technologies on the market to combat major above-ground corn pests were all derived from the same protein, Cry1Ab. This protein proved to be very effective in controlling European corn borer, but because there are so many above-ground pests that destroy and damage crops, the need to innovate a stronger technology was clear.
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Members of the Syngenta team recognized a gap in control measures that still allowed above-ground pests to cause significant damage to cornfields. They believed the right technology could prevent these losses for corn growers. By protecting corn crops against key above ground pests—corn earworm, cutworm, armyworm and corn borer—Syngenta could also significantly reduce insect feeding damage to ears and the subsequent development of molds and mycotoxins that results from the damage, safeguarding the health of animals that consume corn and delivering more high-quality grain.

This sort of “jack-of-all-trades” technology could also be a huge time and money saver for farmers. If the team could successfully identify a protein that had activity against numerous corn pests, the industry would benefit from more than just a method of defense.

The Road to Discovery

Black cutworm is just one of many above-ground pests that can cause significant damage to cornfields.
Thomas Jefferson said, “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” This was the fail-fast, deliberately innovative mentality that defined the team’s efforts and planted the seed that led Warren to test a spoiled carton of milk he had accidentally left in his refrigerator after going on vacation for a week.

At that time, Warren knew that proteins with commercial levels of activity against corn insects had only been found in bacteria, and up until that point, that single bacterium was Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt, a spore-forming bacterium that produces proteins toxic to insects, exists all over the environment in a variety of strains. Prior to Warren’s work, scientists had only tested one particular Bt growth stage for such proteins.

As a truly creative mind, Warren didn’t just throw the spoiled milk away. Instead, he attempted to isolate bacteria from the milk and test the bacteria to see if it would make proteins at other stages of its lifecycle.

He admits the driver of this project wasn’t broad-spectrum insect control, but rather an idea to try and find non-Cry proteins that would have activity against at least black cutworm. At the time, black cutworm was a key pest for the Syngenta corn business, and it was very difficult to control with Bt Cry proteins. His realization that Vip3 has activity against so many lepidopteran pests was serendipitous, but in the end, resulted in a solution that closed the gap in above-ground pest control measures and benefited corn growers for years to come.

The Path Forward

More than two decades later, Vip3A is the only protein on the market that is derived from an earlier Bt lifecycle stage and has activity against more than 12 major above-ground insects. But its path to success was neither simple nor fail-proof.

In 1995, the first attempt to make a commercial genetically modified (GM) corn product that produced Vip3A failed. This initial attempt was challenging, and it took several tries to be successful. However, the Vip3A team was not deterred; and by 1999, R&D was back in full swing. After countless breeding experiments and trials and overwhelming dedication, MIR162 was the first GM corn product to successfully produce Vip3A. Safety studies and U.S. regulatory approvals took another 12 years.

Corn hybrids with Agrisure Viptera produce noticeably healthier ears (left) compared with insect-damaged corn hybrids without Agrisure Viptera (right). Atkinson, Nebraska, 2017
Eric Boudreau, Ph.D., head of trait development for Syngenta in both the North America and Latin America regions, insists the passion-fueled perseverance exhibited by the Vip3A scientists is crucial to bringing a new technology successfully to market. There were many points during Agrisure Viptera’s 18-year journey where the team could have abandoned the project. Instead, Syngenta forged ahead to introduce the most advanced trait against above-ground pests.

Purposeful innovation, creativity and a willingness to fail and try again define success in R&D. There is rarely an easy path to success, and usually the fight to continue to innovate is rarely over—just like the development of Agrisure Viptera.

More than 20 years after the initial gene was first discovered, Syngenta scientists continue to expand their research, working to develop new products with both known and undiscovered genes. Through it all, the lesson is clear: To breed the best traits, you have to breed a spirit of creativity.