Seed selection picking up speed
Quantity joins quality, not one versus the other.
By Ralph Pearce
Breeding for particular traits or characteristics always has been a matter
of working with large quantities of hybrid or varietal crosses in the hopes
of finding small amounts of suitable quality. The technology available to breeders
and researchers was incapable of providing speed, accuracy and an abundance
of qualitative results at the same time.
That trend has been altered rather substantially. Seed companies have released
stacked traits and are now working on 'total package' hybrids in corn, containing
resistance to various pests with the intention of adding disease resistance,
drought tolerance or improving nitrogen efficiency in the near future.
The technology also has enabled researchers to test larger quantities of material
with greater accuracy for obtaining the desired quality. Dr. Steven King, a
researcher at Pioneer Hi-Bred's Woodstock research station, agrees that improved
technological methods have created a faster and better pipeline of Pioneer hybrids
from first cross to commercial release. And it has helped the industry overcome
what King refers to as a flattening of corn's yield increase curve.
"If you think back to that curve over time, once they started making hybrids
and got into single cross hybrids, there was exponential growth," says
King. "In recent years, you can almost argue that the curve is starting
to flatten out a bit, so we really want that curve to go up again, exponentially,
and technology is helping us to do that."
Contrary to the perception that all technology or research relates only to
genetic modifications, King points to advancements in DNA fingerprinting and
marker-assisted selection as two developments that have helped raise the bar
on quality crosses. "Another key area is understanding the environmental
component of performance," says King, adding that as a researcher, he wants
to project what a hybrid is going to do in a farmer's field on thousands of
acres. "Through improvements in experimental design, statistical analysis
and partitioning data in different environments, the more we can learn during
our research process, the better prediction of future performance we're going
Speed begins to equate to quality
Speeding the process has created something of a double-edged sword, says Fred
Sinclair, manager of product development for Pride Seeds of Paincourt, Ontario.
On the one hand, it has generated improved results from a larger selection of
crosses. On the other hand, it has created the perception among some growers
that increasing the speed lends itself to giving up some quality in the resulting
Sinclair stresses that speed is actually letting breeders look at more material
and more crosses with greater accuracy. "It's letting them select and do
things that 10 years ago, would have taken two years to do and now they're doing
it half the time, sometimes," he notes. The odds are getting better because
with this technology and the knowledge base, breeders and researchers are able
to manipulate and read through the results that much better.
One such example exists in the harvesting and analysis of test plots. Sinclair
recalls the days when he would run a Gleaner system through test plots, taking
45 seconds per plot and completing about 1500 plots per day. The unit measured
moisture and yield as any monitor does now. Today, the process has been accelerated
with a twin plot combine, a unit that is separated down the middle with data
gathering equipment that has drastically reduced the time taken for analyzing
"Now, the unit stops for probably 20 seconds and does two plots, and then
they're feeding information into a data collector that goes to a computer online.
Within roughly two hours, everything's graphed out and you know where you're
at for those particular maturities per location," says Sinclair. "It
used to take from two days to three weeks, from start to finish, to summarize
a trial and now they're doing it within hours."
The use of winter nurseries and advancements like dihaploid technology with
Pride Seeds' parent company, AgReliant, is further speeding the process and
offering researchers greater qualitative results.
Trying to predict the next need
If there is a challenge that comes with the speedier quality and quantity approach,
it is reacting to a current situation that becomes riskier. It is unlikely that
breeders might focus on giberella ear rot or one of the ear moulds that became
a problem late in 2006. Reacting to something that is not a problem one year
to the next is not the best approach. Yet, the onset of something like northern
corn leaf blight has become an issue in the past one or two seasons.
Adrian de Dreu looks at that and says being proactive is better than a reactive
approach. "The main thing we need to have in the seed industry is foresight,
to predict and research and develop even before the need becomes apparent to
the grower," says de Dreu, development scientist for corn breeding and
product evaluation with Syngenta Seeds, near London, Ontario. "If you can
be first out there, that's recognized by the grower, but you have to anticipate;
if you only react, then you're always too slow."
Having said that, de Dreu quickly acknowledges a recent tendency of impatience
by growers. No matter how fast a company can bring advancements to market, the
process is often viewed as insufficient by some who have grown accustomed to
the immediacy of North American living. Bringing varieties or hybrids to market
by 2009 or 2010 are viewed as 'not soon enough' even though de Dreu acknowledges
that by conventional means, some of those developments might not make it to
market until 2014. "We are able to bring products to the field faster than
ever, yet it still doesn't seem to happen fast enough," concedes de Dreu.
To speed its own process, Syngenta has doubled the number of its research plots,
both with conventional breeding and with value-enhanced genes and traits. "We're
not reducing the conventional breeding effort at the cost of marker or biotech
research, there are just a lot more dollars being invested in both," he