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Drought-optimized corn hybrids coming

Drought is an unwelcome but regular visitor to the western Corn Belt, knocking on the door somewhere every year and adversely affecting both dryland farmers and those who are limited on their irrigation water.

Syngenta is targeting this region —Nebraska, Kansas, eastern Colorado and South Dakota — for release of its first-generation “water-optimized” hybrids. The company’s Agrisure Artesian hybrids will be released in 2011, in limited quantities, through Garst, Golden Harvest and NK brand products, says Wayne Fithian, head of technical information services for Syngenta Seeds.

At a glance

• The Agrisure Artesian drought-optimized hybrids can help preserve yield.

• Agrisure Artesian hybrids will be available in limited quantities in 2011.

• The hybrids have been tested under irrigation and in dryland plots.


The traits in Agrisure Artesian hybrids enable corn plants to use available moisture more efficiently in stressed environments, although Fithian says that eastern Corn Belt farmers can benefit in years of inconsistent rain or in fields with variable soil types and moisture-holding capacity.

Hybrids with this technology have the potential to deliver “15% yield preservation” under drought stress, according to Fithian, who is based in Waterloo. He calls it “yield preservation” because the hybrids save yield that would otherwise be lost to drought.

“Farmers most interested in Agrisure Artesian products will be those who have access to some irrigation water, but not enough, either because of limited availability or local pumping restrictions. Some of these farmers also have dryland corn. They know what water can do for them,” he notes.

Fithian says Agrisure Artesian technology is neither genetic modification nor developed through conventional breeding. “This is the first-of-its-kind industry release of hybrids using the tools of molecular biology. Syngenta has — over the past 15 years of molecular breeding and gene association mapping — identified and mined many genes from the corn genome responsible for managing water use in corn.”

In all, Syngenta scientists and breeders worked with 12 different genes in this initial launch of these hybrids.

“We have identified a set of genes that are very active during drought, all of which already are in corn but, at the same time, were very rare. We used marker-assisted breeding to increase the frequency of expression of these genes,” he says. “Each of these genes modifies the plant’s drought response in a way that helps preserve yield.”

Fithian says scientists looked at the best alleles of those genes. “An allele is a variation in a single gene that occurred over time through natural selection. We are mining this natural selection.”

Intensive screening

The hybrids were screened in managed-stress environments, under both limited irrigation plots and dryland plots, in multiple locations across the western and central U.S., including McCook, Alma and Sutherland in Nebraska and Hoxie in Kansas. Dryland plots were also planted in Ogallala, Imperial, North Platte, Seward and several other locations.

The next wave in the company’s molecular breeding program involves finding genes that are no longer in the corn hybrids currently being planted in the Corn Belt, those that have been lost through the process of domestication. This would include, among other sources, wild ancestral corn plants.

Syngenta is also developing a complementary water-optimized hybrid product using genetic engineering. Those hybrids are anticipated to be available after 2015, pending regulatory and key market approvals.

Agrisure Artesian hybrids will be sold with Agrisure 3000GT and Agrisure GT trait technologies.

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MANAGING DROUGHT: Wayne Fithian, head of technical information services for Syngenta Seeds (left), and Theron Roundy, corn scientist, are shown at the Syngenta breeding site near Goehner.

This article published in the October, 2010 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.