Usually the items featured in this column are something a farmer or rancher uses directly in his operation. But this time the featured technology actually is housed in a Monsanto seed research facility in Ankeny, Iowa, in the form of a computer controlled seed chipper that allows seed breeders to know the exact DNA makeup of a seed before it's planted. By knowing the DNA before planting, those seeds that don't have the desired genetic makeup are never planted, but discarded.
Before Monsanto started seed chipping on soybeans in the early 2000s, each seed had to be planted and the DNA of that particular seed wasn't discovered until a tissue analysis was made of the growing plant. However, by making use of seed chipping technology, two years can be knocked off the time it takes to develop a new variety, according to Cindy Ludwig, the chipper tour program manager for Monsanto.
An average soybean plant may have as many as 200 beans at harvest time and usually there are over 600 kernels on an ear of corn, Ludwig noted. And each of those kernels of corn or soybeans, even though they came from the same ear or plant, has its own genetic makeup. But by taking a small chip from each seed, totaling 5 milligrams, which amounts to no more than a tiny flake, the DNA of each seed is determined and yet the embryo in the seed remains intact and readily germinates when placed in the soil.
Seed chipping allows a plant breeder to list a group of characteristics he would like to see in the genetic line he is developing. The DNA analysis of the seed chip details the genetic pattern of that particular seed and if it meets the genetic list of the researcher, it's planted, but if the seed fails to meet the requested genetic makeup, it is discarded.
A separate chipping machine is needed for each of the crops - soybeans, corn, cotton, melon, cucumber and wheat - Monsanto is now putting through the seed chipper. The first chipper was developed for soybeans, since the embryo of the soybean seed always lies around the 'equator position' on a soybean seed that is dropped. Because of that, each soybean is firmly held in the chipper and a small, almost dust-like particle, is chipped from the top of the soybean, leaving the embryo untouched.
Corn, however, was a different story. When a kernel of corn enters the chipping chamber, an image is taken of the seed and that image is sent to a computer that determines how the seed needs to be rotated in the chipping chamber so the growing point end is undamaged and the chip is taken from the opposite end of the kernel. Developing this mechanism took a little additional time, causing corn chipping to be delayed for a few years, according to Ludwig.
The concept of the seed chipper actually came from an electrical engineer on the Monsanto staff. Seed researchers were gathered with some of the people from the technical department of the company, requesting that they come up with a faster way of doing tissue sampling for DNA from the plants they were using to develop new plant lines. Kevin Deppermann, an electrical engineer, suggested they instead analyze the seed, since that would be faster than waiting for the plants to grow before they were checked for their DNA, therefore making the process more efficient.
"The plant breeders said that would never work," Ludwig related, "but Kevin picked up a finger nail file and filed off a little bit of the soybean seed away from the embryo and put it in a planter in his office. He poured diet Coke on it, because that was the only liquid source that was available at the moment and sure enough, it sprouted. That was back in the early 2000s and hence chipping was formed, because an electrical engineer didn't know better."
At this time, because of the many patents obtained in the development of the seed chipping process, Monsanto is the only seed company employing this procedure in their plant breeding program. In the case of corn and soybeans, the chippers are used in both the traditional and genetically modified plant breeding programs, she said, and with the aid of chippers growers should see new crop varieties come out at a more rapid pace and with more stacked traits. "Some of our lines now have eight stacked genes," she said, "but some of our breeders are expecting some lines, in the not too distance future, to have up to 20 stacked genes. I don't see how that would be possible without this technology and innovation. You need to know a lot about the DNA when you are stacking 20 genes into the genotype.
"It's all about giving better support to the plant breeders so they can get better products out to the farmers."
Last year, Ludwig noted, over 14,000 people toured the plant research facility in Ankeny and over half of those visitors were farmers.
"Almost everyone admits to being surprised at how much work goes into developing new lines of plants and they have a better understanding of why a bag of seed costs what it does today, and it performs much better than those seeds that were being used just a few years ago." she said.
Monsanto's public display of the seed chipper was part of the activities of the recent Peterson Farm' SeedÕs annual field day that was held on Aug. 6 near Prosper, N.D.