50 Shades of Green

Researchers apply high tech science to traditional farming methods to help farmers produce higher yields that are also drought and disease resistant.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Standing inside a greenhouse in Research Triangle Park, it's hot on the inside: all of that sunlight streaming through the glass walls and ceiling, and then being trapped, heats the place up quickly.

The greenhouse is also humid and noisy. Giant blowers keep the air circulating, but because there is nowhere for the water that evaporates from the soil and transpires from the plants to go, the air feels tropical.

So it’s not surprising that Jenna Ausbon, a research and development specialist with Bayer Crop Science, is trying to get her work here in the greenhouse finished as quickly as possible.

“It’s hot and uncomfortable, but it’s important that we take the samples from each plant and send them to the lab to confirm that the gene that was in the parent plant was passed down to these plants,” explains Ausbon, as she takes small samples from one leaf of each plant in the row.

She’s working in one of five massive greenhouses in Bayer’s Crop Science Division in Research Triangle Park.

“It’s cool to see something that I’ve worked on is doing well, and going through the pipeline and might eventually become a product,” adds Ausbon. “We are growing these plants for seed production and they will go to field trials. So my samples help to confirm that the traits we are looking at in the plant are performing well, so that plant can then go on to a field for further data analysis."

Bayer is testing plants, herbicides and fertilizers in hopes of meeting the ultimate challenge. The company wants to help farmers feed the Earth’s expected population of 9.7 billion people by 2050. It’s estimated that food production will need to increase by 40 percent to meet that demand.

“It would be easy to meet that demand simply by planting more crops on more land but that can’t be done,” explains David Hollinrake, who is with Bayer Marketing for North American operations. “Right now roughly three percent of land is used for agriculture, and that’s not likely to get better with urbanization and land degradation. That means the only way to produce more food is to create new ways, new seeds, new production practices, new innovations and new tools, so farmers can improve production on the land they have.”

Traditional agriculture also requires large amounts of water, which is difficult as drought conditions worsen around the world and water shortages grow.

In short, farmers are turning to science and technology to help them grow more food.

Because traditional farming methods won’t dramatically increase food production, Bayer uses the greenhouses to test new varieties of plants that grow faster, use less water and are more disease and pest tolerant.  The goal is to discover new plant varieties that can meet the demands of farmers and food production, and reduce the amount of chemicals applied to fields. Elizabeth Dozier, a senior research associate with Bayer, is studying soybeans that were crossbred to resist a disease.

"What we're seeing here is referred to as chlorosis,” explains Dozier, as she points out blotches of yellow on several leaves. “This yellowing is caused by our herbicide. Some of this would recover, and some of this wouldn't, but we're looking for something without any damage at all. That’s because moving forward into the field, plants that are completely green will have a better chance.”

Sometimes the plant and soil surveys are not done in the greenhouse. In the nematode lab, scientists analyze soil samples, looking for nematodes. The tiny worms chew their way into plant roots, which eventually kills the plant. The tiny creatures only live for 30 days, but they reproduce so quickly that only a few worms can lead to the devastation of an entire field of soybeans. Nematodes cause more than $1 billion in crop damage each year.

In addition to the special labs, there are roughly 70 rooms inside the multiple greenhouses. That allows specific environments from around the world to be replicated. It also means scientists can test how specific plants would grow in each of those environments.

Corn is the crop most produced in the world, but it is used for more than just food. Wheat takes up more acreage. Rice is the most important food crop.

Plants are brought to the greenhouses from the innovation center, where researchers have put new traits into the plant either by traditional crossbreeding or through genomics, changing the plant's DNA.

Greenhouse technicians grow the plant until it seeds. Those seeds are then collected and tested to see if the genes and traits that were added to the plant are in the new seed. Scientists have also studied the plant to see how well it grows and adapts to the environment with the new genetic trait.

“Seed production is the first goal of the greenhouse because we need the seeds to continue developing new plants,” says Kurt Boudonck, Greenhouse Group Leader for Bayer Crop Science. ”Once the plants are grown, we test the seeds to make sure the traits we are looking for are passed on to the next generation.”

The second goal is to test how plants are performing, based on what new traits are inside the plant, such as a resistance to insects. If researchers find that a plant is doing well, it is allowed to go to seed and then the seeds are collected for more testing.

“And that leads to our third goal,” adds Boudonck, as he gestures across a large room with hundreds of plants. “Once there is a good result, we may need to make hundreds of variations of plant with a specific characteristic, so that it will grow in multiple climates and geographies across the U.S. We need to find the one plant that has the right trait we are looking for, that can be passed along, and that grow in multiple places. But that’s science, asking lots of questions to find just the right answer.”

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