From the road, the Jerseyville research farm looks like any other Southwest Illinois farm: corn and soybeans dominate the landscape and a couple sheds rise above the green. Once I entered the center of the 240-acre site, I discovered how special the farm is—where nearly every row of plants receives special care.
Jerseyville is one of a handful of sites where biotech traits are tested in the field. Their performance and reaction to the conditions (much more variable than in a controlled setting like a greenhouse) are monitored and tracked throughout the season.
That’s why nearly a dozen researchers from St. Louis were on site early in July to check on their projects. It’s one thing to be able to see the traits perform in the greenhouse setting; it’s quite another to see how they react within different growing environments and genetic backgrounds said Oscar Sparks, Field Project Team Representative for the dicamba-glufosinate-glyphosate-tolerant corn project.
“The greenhouse and nursery provide an early indication of herbicide tolerance for event screening and decisions,” said Sparks. “Replicated field trials provide both efficacy and grain yield and determine if an event or constructs has met product concept.”
The Biotech Process
Plenty of things have to break right for a biotech pipeline candidate to make it to the field.
At the Chesterfield Village Research Center, Monsanto researchers run tens of thousands of plants that contain candidate traits—also known as events—through tests in the Discovery Phase of the research and development pipeline. This phase is where the researchers identify potential genes to be inserted into crops for traits. After insertion, the crop events are monitored in small-scale tests in a greenhouse to determine if the gene was expressed well—in other words, researchers determine if the gene of interest was inserted at a good place on the crop’s DNA and whether the event meets initial product concepts.
If the researchers are satisfied with results, the events graduate to the next step in the pipeline for more thorough testing. This stage is the first opportunity for researchers to monitor how the event reacts in a small field trial. The trials are conducted according to strict U.S. Department of Agriculture and stewardship requirements.
“The field screens kick out the events that don’t meet our requirements,” Sparks said. “We choose events for advancement that show promise and meet the product concept. We’ll evaluate those in future growing seasons.”
This part of the season is when researchers’ work picks up. It’s the middle of the growing season, and they’re learning more about how the events are responding to uncontrolled conditions.
For Marty Heppler, an entomologist who was studying lepidopteran pests’ reaction to the Corn Borer III pipeline events, the field work is the moment of truth for her research.
“It’s exciting because a lot of the varieties that we take to the field, we’ve been working with for several years,” said Heppler. “You develop an attachment to some traits. You get excited about going to the field. Some do great in the greenhouse, and then you’re excited to see how it does in the field.”
As I watched Sparks and Heppler and their teams in the fields, the attachment to the trials is evident. Nearly every plant is given at least an eyeball review, and some receive a closer inspection—a peek at the stalk or a quick check of the leaves.
And that’s why Jerseyville and the biotech farms are important to Sparks, Heppler and Monsanto researchers—they provide a “real-world situation,” Heppler said. Also, the abundance of experience within the research farm teams has been key for the ability to plant and evaluate so many events.
“The farms allow us to grow the crops all the way through maturity,” Sparks said. “We get to look at the agronomic and reproductive characteristics of the events and see how they may eventually help farmers in the coming years.”