By Brandie Piper
Matchmakers have a long history of pairing together two people who complement each other in the hopes of fostering a relationship. The process is similar for plant breeders and the crops they study.
Like matchmakers, the goal of plant breeders is to bring together the two plants best-suited for each other so they can produce offspring with the best characteristics of both. The resulting offspring are called hybrids or varieties, depending on the crop. At Monsanto, our plant breeders play matchmaker every day to all types of crops such as corn, soybeans, peppers, and cotton. Plant breeding is the basic foundation upon which the Research & Development Pipeline at Monsanto is based.
For corn, the process is a year-long commitment by men and women who are looking to breed new corn plants that have improved agronomic traits, drought tolerance, tolerance to disease and other beneficial traits—all of which can lead to better harvests.
“It’s a fun and rewarding and yet challenging process,” said Dr. Michael Kovach, a corn breeder at Monsanto. “Our breeding teams are trying to look several years into the future to help farmers better withstand nature’s challenges.”
Just like farmers have been doing for thousands of years, Kovach says plant breeders cross two corn plants with characteristics they want to bring together, and sort through hundreds of thousands of genetic entities looking for the best corn that have the right combination of traits in a corn plant for the farmer. But unlike our ancestors, today’s plant breeders have an array of modern tools to speed up the selection process and allow plant breeders to make selections based on genetics, in addition to physical characteristics.
Technologies such as seed chipping and whole genome sequencing are enabling plant breeders to look closely at the DNA of each plant and predict performance before the seed even gets planted in the ground. These step-change innovations have helped to accelerate the rate at which plant breeders identify improved varieties—meaning farmers have access to better seeds that help them have better harvests while using water and other important resources more efficiently.
Kovach says the hybrids are grown in diverse environments around the world and undergo many years of thorough testing to ensure they are high-performing hybrids.
Here’s a look at what corn breeders are doing throughout the year:
January – February
Ears of corn grown the previous summer are shelled and prepared for field testing.
Ears of corn begin to arrive back from winter nurseries located in the southern hemisphere. They are evaluated and shelled in preparation for field testing.
Side-by-side comparisons of hybrids are planted. Plant breeders will also plant their breeding nurseries, where hand pollination will be done later in the summer.
May – June
Once the corn starts growing, the trial fields are maintained to eliminate weeds and ensure uniform conditions exist across the fields. Breeders also test to evaluate the disease resistance of each breeding line.
The corn flowers (tassels and ear shoots form) and a large crew of pollinators will use paper bags to make pollinations by hand over four or five weeks.
Pollination wanes in early August. The height and ear position of the hybrids are measured to ensure they aren’t too tall, which would make them more likely to fall over.
Workers will go to the trials and count how many plants have fallen down in each hybrid plot, which usually happens due to wind. They’ll record if the corn plant broke at the root or at the stalk, and enter all of the information into a computer database that the breeder will use to help them make decisions.
Specialized combines are used to harvest the trials, recording the exact yield (the amount of the crop harvested) of the plot and its moisture content. All of the harvest data is sent to the breeders, who analyze the data across to determine the highest-performing hybrids.
Meanwhile, in the breeding nursery, a team of workers hand-harvest the ears that were pollinated in the summer. These ears will be evaluated by the breeder and shelled, and the selections will be grown in winter nurseries or the following summer.
October – November
Breeders from around the country gather and vote on which hybrids will be advanced to the next stage of evaluation.
The breeding material that is selected to advance to the next stage of testing is packaged for winter nurseries, which allow breeders to increase seed production in warmer climates during the off-season.