Drought Tolerant Crops Make Progress

It'll be a few years before you see these crops in your fields, but the early reviews from research are starting to come in. Willie Vogt

Published on: Mar 4, 2004

Imagine a crop that can take a few weeks of no rain and still offer a high yield, and you'll see the same vision that plant breeders and biotech experts are seeing too. But for those researchers, reality is starting to set in and the news is good.

"Right now it's a lot like the cycle we went through with Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn," says Robb Fraley, chief technology officer, Monsanto. "We're really in the early stages of development, but we've done the early screens and we're working on conventional breeding." We caught up with Fraley during the Commodity Classic in Las Vegas this week.

Monsanto ran its first field test of drought-tolerant crops in Kansas in 2003, but those were very early trials on a limited basis. It will be a few years before these crops are reality, yet Fraley is optimistic.

The crops in test stood up to dry weather and provided healthy performance in early trials. But these are small-scale tests and the first outside of a greenhouse. It'll be some time before the true value of the drought-tolerance trait is understood.

"We have a lot of testing to do. We know the genes are dominant and they work the same in monocots and dicots," Fraley explains. "But we still have work to do on testing, determining the right promoters for the genes and what vectors to use." That's biotech-speak for more field work and regulatory work ahead.

But Monsanto is looking at specific crops where these drought-tolerant genes could be put to work, including corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and Fraley says perhaps even wheat farther in the future. This will be a biotech trait and subject to all the same regulatory processes as currently available technology, Fraley explains.

When Fraley discusses this drought tolerant gene (it is a single-gene trait), he notes that biotechnologists at the company have also identified genes that enhance photosynthesis and genes that improve nitrogen uptake and utilization in plants. The first step is to find those genes in one plant, then look for a similar grouping of genes in the potential commercial crop.

For the drought tolerant gene, some of the research will involve defining drought tolerance and where the trait works best. Does it reduce water dependence? What is the timing where the trait works best - mid-season or early season? And Fraley says all those questions have to be answered before the trait is available. All those factors will be under test in field trials during season 2004.

And what about that elusive "yield" gene? Fraley takes a more holistic view of the idea saying that Roundup Ready and even Bt genes already offer farmers higher yield. In the future, drought protection, nitrogen uptake and enhanced photosynthesis will also enhance yield.