DES MOINES, Iowa, July 13, 2009 - Corn growers facing the challenge of drought conditions now will have even better options for improving their yields. Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, is boosting corn yields under drought conditions through multiple, synergistic paths - including conventional breeding, molecular-enhanced breeding and selection, and transgenic approaches.
Leveraging the results of this strategy, Pioneer plans to introduce its first drought-tolerant corn hybrids developed with Accelerated Yield Technology (AYTTM) as early as 2010, pending product performance in on-farm drought-stressed trials.
These new hybrids, known as Drought I on the Pioneer Research and Development pipeline, contain native corn drought-tolerance genes that have been identified through marker-assisted selection and advanced into elite genetics using the tools of AYT. These corn hybrids will be marketed in dryland and limited-irrigation growing environments of the western Corn Belt where yield expectations typically are lower due to lack of adequate rainfall and available water. Drought I corn hybrids will be developed using native drought-tolerance traits, therefore they will not require regulatory approvals for commercialization or export.
"This is a huge step-change in a corn plant's ability to yield with less water," says Jeff Schussler, Pioneer senior research manager. "Two main factors in improving drought tolerance are a plant's resource capture and its resource utilization. Through our multifaceted research, we have identified genes that allow the corn plant to significantly improve in both areas - the plant's ability to capture more resources such as water, sunlight and nutrients and to allow for better utilization - in other words, improving the plant's effectiveness in using resources."
Yield improvement targets for Drought I corn hybrids are 5 to 10 percent better than leader hybrids currently available in these limited-water environments, says Schussler. Hybrids with improved drought-stress tolerance also may enable farmers to expand their corn acres by planting them in more arid conditions that typically only support the production of wheat, cotton or sorghum.
Leadership in drought research
Based on historical data, about one-third of the North American corn crop has yield reductions due to water limitations every growing season. According to current market conditions, it's estimated U.S. farmers are losing about $5 billion in potential yield each year and on a global scale, growers are losing $13 billion annually.
"Pioneer drought-tolerant traits will help stabilize grower income with higher yields and have the potential to reduce irrigation costs when water deficits occur," says Schussler.
Pioneer is the industry leader in the research and development of drought-tolerant corn hybrids with efforts stretching back to the 1950s. The tools the company is employing to improve drought stress include: managed stress research locations in North and South America, FAST Corn, AYT and six North American corn research centers with dedicated drought programs.
The company has been focusing research efforts around drought tolerance since the opening of its York, Neb., research center in 1958. Breeding efforts in York and locations such as Garden City, Kan., LaSalle, Colo., Brookings, S.D., and Plainview, Texas, have enabled Pioneer to establish market leadership in dryland and limited-irrigation growing areas of the western Corn Belt. In addition, establishment of managed stress environments such as Woodland, Calif., and Viluco, Chile in South America, have allowed for year-round testing.
"Pioneer researchers and corn breeders understand the importance of planting the right product on the right acre to maximize yields on a farm-by-farm basis and know that solutions are not one-size-fits-all," says Schussler.
Many commercial Pioneer hybrids already have strong drought-stress tolerance thanks to 50-plus years of R&D focused on improving yields under drought, says Schussler. Research results from a study conducted earlier this decade demonstrated that plant breeders had doubled yields of Pioneer corn hybrids grown under drought stress between the 1970s and 1990s. Pioneer has refined, developed and promoted alternative corn production systems such as Early Corn Early, which originated in southeast Kansas in the early 1980s, and Ecofallow to enable corn growers in arid regions or where the soil profile overlaying bedrock is very thin to maximize corn yields with limited available water.
"Pioneer's targeted drought-breeding programs focus on aggressive testing where higher levels of drought stress occur," says Schussler. "This provides the greatest improvement under the most severe drought conditions and the greatest return for growers."
Drought research pipeline
"Drought is a complex trait and one that is tied directly to corn yield, which in itself has many contributing factors," says Schussler. "Our research focuses on aspects such as improving root systems or increasing the plant's ability for silks to emerge during drought stress. We have to modify the corn plant's natural conservative tendencies and instead, produce more grain per inch of water. Research has allowed us to strike a balance between energy for an improved root system while avoiding a potential negative impact on the development and yield above ground," he adds.
The Pioneer Research pipeline continues to bring forth improvements for growers in water-challenged areas of the Corn Belt. On the horizon are Drought II drought-tolerant hybrids, which will combine native tolerance with transgenes to deliver higher yields across all environments. The first of a series, Drought II trait packages will be commercialized within five to seven years (2014 to 2016). Pioneer research trials of Drought II hybrids in 2008 yielded up to 16 percent more than their elite conventional isolines under drought stress and expressed an 8 percent yield increase across all environments in three years of trials.
Droughts I and II are initial launches from a robust Pioneer R&D program that will continue to leverage internal and external drought-tolerance trait leads to enhance corn yields under drought stress conditions. A number of transgenic constructs are in discovery and phase I of the pipeline and are expected to be released within the next decade.
Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, is the world's leading source of customized solutions for farmers, livestock producers and grain and oilseed processors. With headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, Pioneer provides access to advanced plant genetics in nearly 70 countries.
DuPont is a science-based products and services company. Founded in 1802, DuPont puts science to work by creating sustainable solutions essential to a better, safer, healthier life for people everywhere. Operating in more than 70 countries, DuPont offers a wide range of innovative products and services for markets including agriculture and food; building and construction; communications; and transportation.