Monsanto's Seed Chipping TechnologyPosted in: Business By Chris Paterson January 1 2013
Traditionally, seed companies on the quest for specific characteristics in their new seed varieties have had to rely on the age-old practice of plant breeding, the act of bringing together two specific parent plants to produce a new “offspring” plant. The major challenge is genetic diversity in nature. An ear of corn usually has more than 600 kernels, each kernel has its own genetic makeup and produces a unique plant, which may or may not express the desired characteristics.
DNA mapping technologies have sped up the process by enabling the testing of leaf samples for the presence of a specific gene and not having to wait to see if that gene is expressed at plant maturity. Now, Monsanto's unique and patented seed chipping technology enables testing before the seed is even planted, effectively reducing the time it takes to produce a new variety by more than two years.
It’s now possible to find the handful of seeds containing the genes of interest from the millions tested
The seed chipping innovation came about when Kevin Deppermann, an electrical engineer with Monsanto at the time, was meeting with the plant breeders to discuss how to speed up the leaf tissue sampling process when he suggested they analyze the seed instead; since that would be faster than waiting for the plants to grow before checking their DNA. At the time, testing a seed’s DNA involved crushing the seed into powder, so even if the target gene was discovered, the seed was destroyed in the process. Kevin and his team persisted with this idea and they invented a special chipping device that shaves off a tiny piece of the seed, while the remainder of the seed remains viable for planting.
Today, seed from Monsanto research fields goes to the seed chipper facility in Iowa for evaluation, every individual seed is coded and catalogued. Seed by seed, about one per second, Monsanto’s patented seed chipper (which is small enough to fit into your kitchen) extracts a portion of each seed. The crushed material from the seed chip is analyzed with an automated high-throughput genotyping system and the DNA profile is reconciled with the original seed. The seeds that carry the genes of interest go back to the field research program and the rest are discarded.
This has dramatically increased the efficiency of Monsanto’s seed breeding and selection process. It also means that where the goal used to be a stack of 8 designer traits in one variety, as many as 20 stacked traits in one plant is now realistic. What this means to farmers is more rapid access to varieties with superior yield, drought tolerance, salt tolerance, nitrogen efficiency, insect resistance, disease resistance, and more.Previously, if a plant breeder wanted to put 10 genes from 1 parent and 10 genes from another parent into 1 individual that represented one billion combinations, which translates into a one in a trillion chance of finding that individual using the traditional method. By using the chipping technology, it’s now possible to find the handful of seeds containing the genes of interest from the millions tested.
The seed chipping technology is currently being used for developing new varieties of corn, soy, wheat, melon, cucumber, and cotton. So far, canola has proven to be too small and oily to handle in the seed chipping machine.
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