Technology is central to US agri-science major Monsanto, known world over for producing genetically engineered seeds.
Researchers at Monsanto's Creve Coeur headquarters in St Louis showed one of the cutting-edge technologies pioneered by Monsanto - the Corn and Mega Soy chipper to a group of Indian journalists. "The seed chipper makes life and research much easier for breeders," a technologist said.
Richard Schumacher, a former Monsanto researcher who works as a guide at Creve Coeur after retirement, said: "We are cutting a window into the seed. The breeder knows what is there before he puts it into the ground. It is cost effective." The corn chipper, he said, was developed at Monsanto to enable breeders to use chipping as a way to increase efficiency and reduce time.
Each of the 600 plus kernels on an ear of corn is unique - the DNA in each has its own genetic make-up - each could grow into a mature plant unlike any other. "In the past, each seed had to be grown to show its characteristic. Plant breeders, however, can now use the chipping process to take a small chip from each seed while preserving the seed's future ability to grow. An analysis of the DNA from the chip can predict what characteristics the plant will have at maturity."
Schumacher, who took the journalists around to show the seed chippers work, said chipping process results in greater success rate in the early stages of hybrid development, saves times and land since field trials are more efficient. "Using this, we are able to deliver products to the farms as much as two years faster and allow hybrids to deliver multiple benefits," he said.
Technologists at Creve Coeur said there was one seed among millions that contained the traits breeders were looking for. The Monsanto invented the chipper for corn. But this was no easy feat. The irregular shape of corn seed was a challenge. The embryo must be kept away from the chipping area. So one had to orient each seed based on its individual shape. That was something that was never done before.
"The search for the right corn seed begins at our research stations. Here, breeders' plant and harvest lines of corn that may contain new traits. Then they package the seeds in bar coded envelopes which are sent to Monsanto's chipping lab," a former Monsanto researcher said.
"We scan the bar code on the envelope to keep a track of the breeding station, the breed, the variety and pair of lines of that corn sample. The seeds are then poured into the corn chipper. One seed is picked at a time. Motors turn each seed into the right direction for chipping, protecting the embryo. After that, chips fall into chip plates and the corresponding seeds fall into the seed plates. Information that links the chip to its seed is stored in the computer.
After chipping, the samples go to our genetic fingerprinting facility. Here the DNA from each corn chip is extracted and analysed. The results of that DNA analysis will give us DNA fingerprint that's just a genetic profile that tells us whether or not the genes or traits that we want in that seed are present,'' Schumacher added.
'Thrust on improving seed quality'
Monsanto press relations officer Dan Holman said the company's research and development budget last year was 1.4 billion dollars. "The money was spent on breeding and biotech. Our focus is on improving seeds. The 1.4 billion dollars we are investing is more than what the US department of agriculture spends on agri-research," he said, adding that the budget last year was 1.1 billion dollar as compared to what they spent. Former researcher Richard Schumacher said their 1.4 billion dollar investment in research was 12% of company's revenue.
(The writer was in the USA recently for a farm study trip sponsored by Monsanto company)