Since designer genes first debuted in 1996, exciting new corn seed traits have steadily advanced. Over the next five to seven years, the trait package of insect, disease and herbicide resistance will gain new efficiencies and modes of action. The payoff will be more resilience against environmental stressors.

“Most of the traits we have now are defensive traits; they protect yield but don't add to yields,” says Roger Elmore, Iowa State University Extension corn specialist and agronomy professor. “But traits improving the utilization of nutrients mark a change in approach. They are more offensive in nature and may increase yields.”

Besides higher yields, new traits in the pipeline may expand the fringes of the Corn Belt into drier geographies. And new breeding technologies will accelerate the rate of genetic improvement.

“There might be ways to make corn plants do things we have not asked a corn plant to do before,” explains Geoff Graham, senior research director, Pioneer North American maize product development. “For example, you can modify a plant's nutritional qualities to yield higher energy or better-quality energy, a better amino acid profile or to facilitate processor extraction.”

Pioneer is also developing second-generation biofuel traits to better utilize cellulosics. A joint venture with Dynisco will develop low-cost technologies for the production of cellulosic ethanol, Pioneer says.

Specifically, Pioneer Hi-Bred plans to launch a number of traits over the next decade, including:

  • Optimum AcreMax 1 insect protection that, pending EPA approval, would reduce corn rootworm refuge and integrate it into the bag. With approvals expected before 2010 planting, Optimum AcreMax 1 would give you an option to plant more in-plant corn rootworm protection on your operations, regaining yield and limiting the need for other insect control methods such as insecticides.

  • Optimum GAT is an innovative herbicide-tolerance trait that will provide growers a broader spectrum weed control choice. Pioneer expects to bring this trait to market in 2010 for corn and 2011 for soybeans. “It will provide a new choice in herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans that maximizes yield potential and enables broader spectrum weed control options,” Pioneer says. Featuring added ALS tolerance stacked with glyphosate tolerance, this gives growers multiple herbicide options for tough-to-control and resistant weeds.

OTHER SEED COMPANIES are enhancing their trait offerings as well. Syngenta plans two big product trait launches in the near future, says Tracy Mader, Agrisure marketing manager. Presently called MIR162, the newest addition to the Agrisure line will feature a new mode of action in corn called Vegetative Insecticidal Protein (VIP). The MIR162 trait will control a broad spectrum of Lepidopteran insects in corn, including corn earworm, Western bean cutworm, black cutworm and fall army-worm, says Mader.

“We are anticipating commercialization of the MIR162 trait in 2010,” says Mader. “Stacks with the Agrisure GT trait and the Agrisure RW trait also are planned following their regulatory approval,” he adds.

Another set of traits from Syngenta also is anticipated in 2011: water optimization. “This will stabilize yields during dry periods and on sandy soils,” Mader says.

All of the seed traits above will be marketed through Garst, NK and Golden Harvest outlets.

An eight-gene stack called SmartStax is being co-developed by Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto for release in 2010. It will offer multiple modes of action against above- and below-ground corn pests and tolerance of Roundup Ready and Liberty Link in one seed. It will include Dow AgroSciences' Herculex I and Herculex RW technologies, and Monsanto's YieldGard VT Rootworm/RR2 and YieldGard VT PRO technologies.

The Bt proteins in SmartStax deliver multiple modes of action. As a result, a request has been submitted to EPA to reduce refuge requirements (to 5% in the Corn Belt) when SmartStax is planted.

“Part of the secret is multiple ways of killing some of the major insect pests in the trait — itself a resistance-management mechanism because of multiple modes of action,” says Steve Thompson, Dow AgroSciences seeds and traits R&D leader. “Growers will see a very wide spectrum of above- and below-ground insect control and a lot of weed control options.”

Reducing the amount of refuge acres “is the biggest advantage I see in eight-way stacks,” says Elmore. “One advantage of multiple genes for resistance is the reduced probability that a given insect will develop resistance to it. Entomologists will tell you how important this is; it is a logarithmic improvement.”

The SmartStax platform will also be the foundation for adding traits for water-stress tolerance and nitrogen efficiency.

ALSO IN THE pipeline for Dow AgroSciences is a new family of herbicide tolerance traits that could be available by 2012. Known currently as Dow Herbicide Tolerance (DHT), this technology will improve weed control in herbicide-tolerant crops. “DHT will provide crop tolerance to additional grass herbicides, such as aryloxyphen-oxypropionate grass herbicides (FOPS), which are great for glyphosate-resistant grasses,” Thompson says. “FOPS provide an additional mode of control for grass weeds.”

DHT will be stacked with the Herculex insect protection traits to deliver broad-spectrum, in-plant insect protection and strong herbicide tolerance to certain broadleaf and grass herbicides, Dow says.

“We have programs in drought and nitrogen traits, but not any launch dates yet,” Thompson says.

The corn trait pipeline at Monsanto encompasses two broad areas:

  • Agronomic benefits such as improved herbicide tolerance, disease resistance, insect protection and yield enhancements; and increased productivity and reduced input costs. These traits improve insect and disease resistance and have a better ability to combat environmental stresses like drought.

  • Value-added benefits such as nutritional improvements in corn oil and dietary components for the food and feed industry and biofuel plants. In the next five to 10 years, the firm will introduce its Mavera high-value corn with lysine and a more efficient corn fractionation technology developed by the Renessen joint venture between Monsanto and Cargill.

Mavera high-value corn has 50% more oil than conventional corn products, Monsanto says. “As food and biofuels demand increases, so has demand and price of vegetable oils,” says Darren Wallis, Monsanto Company spokesperson.

MAVERA HIGH-VALUE corn products produce as much vegetable oil per acre as soybeans, providing an important new source of vegetable oil with zero trans fats and low levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Used in conjunction with the EXTRAX processing system, ethanol manufacturers can produce corn oil alongside existing ethanol and increased value feed products for poultry and swine.

“The EXTRAX processing system ‘bolts’ on to the front of conventional dry grind ethanol plants to provide four revenue streams instead of two,” Wallis says.

The first Monsanto drought event should be launched in 2012, says John Jansen, Monsanto corn traits marketing lead. “It will be introduced in the moisture-constrained western Corn Belt — the 90-110-bu./acre yield environment in eastern Colorado, up through Nebraska and parts of the Dakotas.

“Our second-generation drought event is due out two seasons later, and is geared more to the central Corn Belt with normal moisture. That event will feature yield insurance traits, for the one-in-five or 10-year drought in Illinois or Iowa, for example. It's more about yield risk protection,” Jansen says.

“The nitrogen-use trait is equally important in our portfolio,” Jansen adds. “You'll see more on this in the middle of next decade, after the drought traits are introduced.

“We will stack these traits on our triple-stack foundation,” he adds.

“Yield is a primary focus of our collaboration with BASF. In just the first few months, the companies have exchanged thousands of data points and developed hundreds of new gene constructs — product concepts that will be field-tested in the coming years.”

Improved insect protection and grain quality are two drivers behind Monsanto's next-generation triple-stacked YieldGard Triple Pro, to be introduced next year. “We added another gene for above-ground corn borer protection that picks up insects not well covered previously,” says Jansen.

OTHER PROJECTS IN the Monsanto pipeline include enhanced protection against aflatoxin and mycotoxin. Bayer Crop Science's research focuses on new crop protection modes of action, improved plant health, optimized plant characteristics and new agronomic traits. Bayer is also increasing its emphasis on herbicide tolerance, insect resistance and increased yields, with six herbicide tolerance and insect resistance projects in a late stage of development. They are scheduled for launch from 2010 onward.

Additionally, three new herbicide-tolerance traits are planned within the next three years, says Friedrich Berschauer, chairman of the Bayer board of management. By 2015, Bayer hopes to introduce tolerance traits to stressors including heat, drought, cold and soil salinity.

“It's an exciting and wonderful time to be in agriculture,” Graham says. “We've never had as many tools as we have right now to target new product development. Together with our diverse genetic germplasm base, our trait pipeline and our AYT technology, we have an unbelievable toolbox to develop new products for a diversifying agricultural industry.”

Editor's Note: Space limitations prevent a more complete listing of traits and companies.