Monsanto's Technology Platform in Wheat

At Monsanto, we have many years of experience with plant breeding and biotechnology in large-acre row crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton. Likewise, WestBred breeders have years of experience with wheat breeding.

Beginning with breeding, researchers will apply this expertise in conventional and marker-assisted breeding tools to develop better-yielding wheat varieties. These seeds will serve as the foundation for the development of new biotechnology traits focused on drought tolerance, nitrogen use and higher yield.

What is Plant Breeding?

Plant breeding is largely focused on improving the overall genetics of a crop by using technology to develop the most powerful plant breeding stock.

Plant breeding is the act of bringing together two specific parent plants to produce a new variety. This “cross,” as plant breeders call it, creates a new plant that will contain a mixture of the characteristics of its parents – much like children have a combination of both of their parents’ characteristics.

In plant breeding for crop production, the parents have likely been selected because they possess characteristics desirable to farmers – such disease tolerance, straw strength, height or milling and baking qualities – than other plants. The resulting combinations are tested under various conditions to determine which has the superior combination of desired attributes.

Plant breeding has been practiced by farmers for thousands of years and has become increasingly science-based in the past 100 years. Today, breeders use a mixture of classic techniques and modern computer- and technology-assisted processes to help select and then breed the plants even faster and more effectively than ever before. The end result is better seeds and plants that help farmers get more production from their fields.

What is Molecular Breeding?

A molecular marker is a gene or DNA sequence that can be associated with the inheritance of a particular characteristic, such as disease resistance or tolerance to environmental stress. Molecular breeding – or marker-assisted breeding – is an enhanced tool that allows researchers to look for these “DNA fingerprints,” or markers, in plants.

The identification and development of wheat-specific molecular markers, combined with other breeding tools, will enable our breeding team to determine which plant crosses will result in the highest quality products. Making more informed decisions earlier in the breeding process also helps them develop high-performing WestBred varieties faster and more efficiently.

The difference between marker-assisted breeding and conventional breeding is similar to crossing the country using a handheld GPS rather than a compass – it’s all about improved accuracy and precision. For example, the probability of finding the most effective combination of genes for a single trait controlled by just 20 genes is less than one in a trillion. Molecular breeding improves those odds to as good as one in five.

What is a "Wheat Chipper"?

Designed by Monsanto engineers specifically for the wheat breeding team, the wheat chipper is a proprietary machine that shaves a tiny tissue sample off a wheat seed to analyze the seed’s genetics. If testing of that seed sample is positive for desirable genetic traits, the seed is still viable so a breeder can plant it in a field test and use it in the breeding process to create more seeds of its kind. The wheat chipper will allow our breeding team to accelerate the screening and development of more ideal WestBred varieties.

What is Biotechnology?

Today, modern plant biotechnology is most commonly thought of as the act of identifying a desirable gene, also commonly called a “trait,” that would not have otherwise been available through breeding (i.e., a gene from another plant species, bacteria, etc.) and then moving this gene into the cells of a crop plant with the specific purpose of improving the next-generation of the plant.

For example, corn plants that are able to defend themselves against the corn earworm or corn rootworm have been improved with the insertion of a gene from commonly found bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt, for short, is a commonly found soil bacteria that has been used in agriculture for years to help farmers kill target insects. In fact, it has been used as a spray in both organic and conventional agriculture.

By inserting a specific gene from Bt into the corn plant, the corn plant is now able to produce a Bt protein that protects the corn plant from specific insects that feed on it. This innovation has helped farmers decrease the use of other pesticides while still protecting corn yields.

Building on Monsanto’s previous experience with wheat and corn, biotech products in wheat could be developed within 10 to 15 years. Potential traits could include Monsanto’s pipeline products such as improved yield, drought tolerance and reduced fertilizer (nitrogen) use, as well as traits for herbicide tolerance and disease resistance – all of which meaningfully address the primary productivity challenges wheat growers face.