The next several decades will bring hybrids to battle more pests and diseases, optimize inputs and provide specific end-use traits.

Much has occurred in the trait market for corn since the first Bt hybrids were commercialized in the mid 1990s. Today, more than two-thirds of U.S.-planted corn has trait(s) designed to ward off harm from the most damaging corn insect pest.

But the trait pipeline is only in its infancy. Fueled by better, more precise breeding tools and processes, plant breeders are unlocking more secrets to the corn genome, which makes the current line-up pale in comparison to tomorrow’s traits.

But it can take decades for a trait to progress from discovery to the field. Still, major trait-provider companies have a robust pipeline of products hitting the market in coming years. Many are working on similar end-use products, although methodology can differ on how the product is being developed. There are also several collaborations between the major providers to bring these traits to market faster.

Monsanto

Tops on the list of Monsanto’s new traited products will be the full commercial launch of its refuge-in-a-bag product called Genuity SmartStax RIB Complete. It’s a blend with 95% SmartStax seed (that contains both above- and below-ground insect-control traits) and a 5% non-insect-protected corn hybrid (it does have herbicide tolerance). This will allow for a single-bag refuge option for producers, says Matt Kirkpatrick, corn traits manager for Monsanto, as opposed to a separate block refuge requirement.

The company expects to convert all of its seed brands from structured refuge SmartStax to Genuity SmartStax RIB Complete in coming years.

Beyond the insect-tolerance traits, Monsanto is also looking at intrinsic yield and drought-tolerance traits. “We not only look at biotech, but advanced breeding and new agronomic practices that give producers a systems solution,” says Dusty Post, global technology lead for Monsanto.

Pending regulatory approval, Monsanto’s first generation of drought-tolerant traits will be unveiled for the 2012 growing season for large-acre testing.

And on the heels of the first-generation of drought-tolerant hybrids is Monsanto’s second generation, targeted for late this decade.

Also on the horizon is Monsanto’s nitrogen (N)-use efficiency traits. They may take one of two distinct forms: traits that use the same amount of N applied to get more bushels per acre, or use less N with no impact on yields.

The pipeline at Monsanto is filled with other traits that are still in the second stage of the research-and-development process, including third-generation corn-rootworm traits, third-generation corn-borer traits, and dicamba-, glufosinate- and glyphosate-tolerant corn traits. Still in the first stage of the pipeline is fops-tolerant corn (herbicides ending in "fop").

Monsanto’s also working on disease-resistant hybrids using gene markers and advanced breeding techniques to integrate lines with resistance to diseases like Goss’ wilt and gray leaf spot. “We expect these hybrids to be in the market in the next several years,” Post says.

Pioneer

When Pioneer’s Optimum AcreMax 1, the company’s first single-bag refuge product for corn rootworm, was released for the 2011 planting season, it was placed on nearly 4 million Midwest acres. The next generation of products includes Optimum AcreMax for above-ground insect protection, and Optimum AcreMax Xtra for above-ground and below-ground insect control. Both products are anticipated to have a 2012 rollout, pending EPA approval.

Optimum AQUAMax, Pioneer’s first drought-tolerant hybrid, was placed on corn acres this spring in select western Corn Belt areas. “From 2008 to 2010, we had more than 200 different grower trials to test this product,” says John Pieper, marketing manager, product strategy, for Pioneer.

The company is working closely with producers to identify how Optimum AQUAMax corn hybrids can best be used. For instance, one management practice in water-limited environments is reducing plant populations. “That’s not necessarily true with Optimum AQUAMax hybrids, so we’re working with producers to ensure they are using the best practices to get the most out of the hybrids,” Pieper says.

Around the corner is the next generation of drought tolerance, which will use a biotech approach. “We will likely complement current Optimum AQUAMax products, depending on what we learn with our transgenic drought trait,” Pieper says. “We are discovering that the trait reacts differently to different drought scenarios. There’s still a lot of testing, and it may be that there are multiple traits for specific producer needs.” This new trait is in what Pioneer’s early development pipeline stage, which could still be several years away, and will need regulatory approval.

Back one notch in the pipeline is the N-use efficiency trait. “There are a lot of exciting things going on with this trait,” Pieper says. “For some producers, using the same amount of N without impacting yield is very important. Still other producers in some watershed environments are looking to reduce the amount of N without impacting yield. We’re approaching both producer concerns and looking at traits that address both needs.”

Pioneer also is working on its next generation of Lepidopteran and Coleopteran resistance traits, as well as a molecular stack. “The goal of these transgenic solutions is to bring higher yield and performance with improved efficacy and a new expanded spectrum of insect control. This would help us extend the trait durability,” Pieper says.

And while not on the producer’s radar, an innovative approach to seed production has received regulatory approval.  The process, which contains a transgenic component used at the front end of the process, eliminates the need to detassel corn during seed production.

“The progeny sold to producers does not contain the transgenic component of the process. The savings in production can be reinvested into research,” he says.

End-use corn traits that improve feed and processing value are in the early development stage as well. “We are targeting improving overall oil content as well as quality, plus digestible energy content,” Pieper says.

Syngenta

Syngenta’s key refuge-in-a-bag products will contain the Agrisure Viptera trait (the company’s broad Lepidopteran trait introduced in 2010). The company lineup will include (pending final regulatory approval) Agrisure 3122 E-Z Refuge for above- and below- ground pests, and Agrisure Viptera 3220 E-Z Refuge for above-ground pests.

According to Grant Ozipko, Syngenta traits marketing manager, the company intends to convert the seed portfolio as quickly as possible to these offerings. “We now have a full trait portfolio proprietary to Syngenta,” he says. “That allows us to understand how these products work.”

On tap for 2014 is Agrisure Viptera 3222, with two modes of action against broad Lepidoptera and above-ground pests, and two modes of action against below-ground pests. “What’s unique is that this product will have the Agrisure Viptera trait and a new next-generation mode of action against rootworm. We anticipate regulatory approval for sales in 2014.”

In limited launch this year are hybrids with Agrisure Artesian technology. These utilize multiple modes of action to help protect corn plants at different stages against different moisture stresses. Agrisure Artesian technology is the first offering in Syngenta’s water-optimization platform to assist growers with moisture management.

“We are evaluating Agrisure Artesian hybrids in irrigated, partially irrigated and dryland markets,” Ozipko says. “There was a limited launch in 2011, and we are working with growers to understand the yield benefits of this product under various drought conditions.”

Further out in Syngenta’s timeline are traited water events, expected sometime in the latter half of this decade. “We’re working on a GM water event that has very specific applications. As we learn more, we will position the product in the appropriate market segments,” Ozipko says.

“What we do know is that with GM traits we can ramp up very fast using current breeding tools,” he says. “Native traits can be complicated, which sometimes limits how quickly they integrate into the product portfolio. Once we determine the dynamics of how a GM trait can work in a hybrid, we can get it into our portfolio faster.”

Syngenta’s Enogen corn is designed exclusively for the ethanol market. Its amylase technology makes starch conversion more efficient, improving the dry-grind ethanol process productivity.

Also on the horizon is work into output-based traits, and how corn can more effectively deliver starches and carbohydrates. “That work is more in the exploratory stages right now, but we are looking at all available markets and how crops can deliver products for those markets,” Ozipko says.

Dow AgroSciences

The first bags of Dow AgroSciences Refuge Advanced powered by SmartStax were sold and planted in 2011, with a full launch planned for 2012. “We anticipate that the Refuge Advanced products will be a mainstay in our lineup because growers have been asking for a single-bag refuge product,” says Casey Onstot, Dow AgroSciences  traits marketing manager.

Steve Thompson, global seeds and traits research and development manager for Dow AgroSciences, says the company is on track to launch its Enlist Weed Control System in 2013 for corn, pending regulatory approvals. This herbicide-tolerant trait will introduce an additional mode of action for tolerance to a new 2-4,D product, stacked with the glyphosate-tolerant trait. The company has also developed a new 2-4,D product.

The company is also working on the next generation corn borer and rootworm trait.

Additional offerings for N-use efficiency and drought tolerance are being researched, but it’s too early to talk about launch dates. “We have a significant program in these areas, and we’re really focusing on corn traits,” Thompson says.

He says the N-use efficiency traits could hold significant promise for producers. “The value proposition is obvious,” he says. “It’s proving to be a complex trait to unlock, but it will be a big deal.”

BASF

While BASF does not have a direct pipeline to producers, it continues to collaborate with germplasm providers in the U.S. to bring stress and yield traits to market.

“Our U.S. business model is to be a trait technology partner,” says Jonathan Bryant, vice president, BASF plant science. “We find the next generation of technologies that we can bring forward. And we believe that the focus will be on yield and stress traits. That’s the biggest opportunity.” Those traits include N use and drought tolerance, which are part of a research collaboration with Monsanto.

Another area getting attention at BASF is output-based traits that improve grain quality. “We’ve invested in improving corn’s nutritional value for more than 10 years,” Bryant says. “And we work a lot with end users who tell us that while we are seeing very high grain prices, the quality has decreased over time.”

Bayer CropScience

Bayer CropScience is assessing numerous areas of trait technology development, including increased yield, improved quality, nitrogen utilization, better stress tolerance, broadened spectrum of herbicide-tolerance and improved pest resistance.

For the corn market, insect control will be a primary focus. “Our MiDAS Gene Resources library allows us to use microbial genomics technology to isolate novel insect control genes from a number of different strains,” says Nick Duck, head of corn and soybean research, Bayer CropScience.“It’s the largest collection of insect-control genes (insect and nematode) of any major trait provider, with more than 330 genes isolated for novel insect paths across crops, including corn.”

The company’s pipeline includes new multiple modes of action for all major corn pests, as well as several new rootworm leads.