A tailor-made field : Breeding and biotech
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Farmers have always found ways to refine plants, empowering them to better protect themselves against harmful pests, weeds and disease, while also using natural resources like water more efficiently. With the help of science, we help farmers to increase their productivity while addressing global challenges of hunger and climate change. Anik Dhanaraj, Senior Analyst and Science Fellow at Bayer, explains how plant breeding and biotechnology work in sync to design modern agriculture.
The most complex challenges of our times - like climate change and access to food - cannot be solved alone. When plant scientists understand the unique challenges farmers face, they are better able to produce products that drive positive results around the world. Through our research and development capabilities in plant breeding, biotechnology, chemistry, and data science, we are able to deliver tailored solutions to farmers faster than ever before.
Breeding and biotechnology
Breeding is when we bring together desirable characters from two plants within a species to get the characters that we want in a plant. For example, if we have a variety of corn with big cobs and another which provides resistance to a pest, we can strive to make better corn hybrid with both characters, i.e. good height and harvest by crossing them. Plant breeding, therefore in its simplest definition, is crossing two plants to produce offspring that, ideally, share the best characteristics of the two parent plants. This technique is as old as agriculture itself and for thousands of years, farmers and scientists have used selective breeding to improve yields as well as produce plants with beneficial characteristics, such as drought tolerance, making use of the plant’s natural genetic diversity.1 In short, breeding is when you bring characteristics from different individuals into an individual within a species.
On the other hand, biotechnology is when we can bring in a character (or genes) from a different species. Let me explain with the help of an example; you may have seen ‘galls’ (or lumps) growing on the trunks of trees. These are caused by certain bacteria (called agrobacterium) which attack the trees and transfer a little of their own DNA/ genes into the plant causing the formation of these galls. The bacteria make the tree produce food that it can survive on by inserting little of its own DNA in the trees’ DNA. Scientists identified this process and began using biotechnology in the 1980s as a method of transferring beneficial genes into a plant, which allowed for greater efficiency and new opportunities for improving crops. This process is called genetic modification (GM), and the result is a genetically modified organism (GMO), or genetically modified seed (GM seed).
The process where you pick up the gene you want from one species and use it in another is called genetic engineering and it is similar to how the bacteria inserts its genes into the plant. How does it help? We can learn from the cotton plant which is affected by a pest called ‘bollworm’ that targets and eats the cotton fruit called ‘boll’. Scientists identified that a gene from a bacteria called Bt – Bacillus thuringiensis which can produce an insecticide capable of killing the bollworm. What they then did is used the process of genetic engineering to insert the gene from Bt into the cotton plant. As a result, the plant products the insecticide within its tissues and when a bollworm eats the cotton plant, it dies. That’s how it has the we developed the GM cotton crop called ‘Bollgard’.
Scientists first have to identify genes that have the potential to improve a crop. When they identify a potentially beneficial gene, it is then isolated from the other species and inserted it into a plant’s DNA. Each new GM (genetically modified) product undergoes years of testing to ensure that it brings value to farmers and is as safe as its non-GM counterpart. On average, it takes 13 years and costs $130 million to bring a GM seed to market.2
In 2018, a total of 70 countries adopted biotech crops - 26 countries planted, and 44 additional countries imported. Of the 31 crops approved for food, feed, and environmental release recorded at the ISAAA GM Approval Database, 13 crops have been planted in 26 countries in 2018. Five biotech crops planted in these countries occupy 99% of the global biotech crop area. The five major biotech crops planted at more than 1 million hectares are soybeans (95.9 million hectares), followed by maize (58.9 million hectares), cotton (24.9 million hectares), canola (10.1 million hectares), and alfalfa (1.2 million hectares).3 The only Genetically Modified Crop that can be commercially grown in India is cotton which has been grown since 2004.
In India, this technology has changed the lives of millions of farmers. The first cotton seed trait was allowed in the country in 2004, followed by an upgraded variety in 2006 which helped transform India into the world’s top cotton producer and exporter of cotton fiber. Today biotechnology becomes even more relevant thanks to a steadily increasing global population and the need for new and innovative solutions to grow enough food while also caring for our planet. In addition to developing new solutions for farmers to address both of these challenges of hunger and climate change, plant breeding also helps make fruits and vegetables tastier and healthier. By combining our knowledge of plant genetics with the power of human ingenuity, plant breeding offers innumerable benefits to consumers, farmers and the world at large.4
What do plant breeders do?
After identifying a challenge (such as crops not being able to withstand drought or flood conditions brought about by climate change), breeders explore ways to harness beneficial genetic characteristics to help plants address that issue, among others. Working in both a designer and engineer capacity, plant breeders blend science with innovation to create new solutions. With the tools we’ve developed along the way, contemporary plant breeding is playing a crucial role in addressing today’s challenges, as well as those we’re sure to face in the future: supporting global food security, helping farmers grow enough while using fewer resources, promoting sustainable agriculture practices and reducing inputs such as crop protection products. For us at Bayer, this means being able to fulfill our vision of ‘Health for all, Hunger for none’.
Our Biotech Research Centre established in 1998 at Bengaluru was the first biotech R&D center outside the US which focuses on gene discovery through data mining and takes systems and computational biology approach to predict mode of action of a gene. In Bengaluru, we also have a Data Science Centre that is involved in R&D activities for plant biotechnology, biologics and empowers our global Crop Science division with data science, data engineering and competitive intelligence. It enables the India business by protecting the Bollgard franchise and accelerating the vegetable and corn breeding pipeline via genotyping. We have nearly 20 full time employees and 15 contract employees at this centre. Additionally, at Kallinayakanahalli in Chikaballapur district, 55 kms from Bengaluru, we have a Mega Breeding Station for research in hybrid seeds. Spread over 100 acres, it represents the majority of Indian corn and vegetable market and the research here caters to requirements in India and countries in South East Asia.
Not just for farming community but also academia
That is why we are passionate about awakening an interest in science among young people at an early age and encouraging their development. Around 2000 students attend our interactive workshops and visit our laboratories in Bengaluru every year to learn more on how science and technology are helping farmers around the world. Through our ‘Baylab’ program, we organize interactive workshops with live insects, plants, demos and specimens to help them learn about plant breeding, plant biotechnology, digital agriculture and microbials, and how they are used in modern-day agriculture for farmers around the world. Students and faculties from educational institutes in Bengaluru and neighbouring cities visit the site. We even have university students from the US who come to understand more about global biotechnology and its impact in India. As a Science Fellow at Bayer, it is my personal endeavor to promote scientific learning to leverage the use of science for modern agriculture. Come pay a visit to our site and learn more about what we do here!
3 (Data source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) http://www.isaaa.org/kc/cropbiotechupdate/article/default.asp?ID=17936#:~:text=In%202018%2C%2070%20countries%20adopted,developing%20and%205%20industrial%20countries)
4 (ref: https://www.cropscience.bayer.com/innovations/seeds-traits/a/better-food-design?utm_medium=comm&utm_content=060820&utm_campaign=Crop%20Science%20-%20Global&utm_source=facebook#sf234772548)