Roundup Ready crops and Bt corn came out in the 90s, and there was a tremendous surge to do basic research. Biotechnology was the 'in' thing because the gene gun did its job, launch a new era in agriculture. Suddenly universities and companies wanted to pour every dollar they could get into researchers who work in labs behind closed doors, figuring out plant genome sequences and all kinds of other biotechnology work.
No one says that's bad—it's certainly delivered lots of breakthroughs already, and it's not going away. However, one day company leaders awoke and realized that 'hey, some of our conventional plant breeders will retire in the next 5 to 15 years. Who will replace them?'
The answer was nobody unless things could be turned around. Fortunately for Purdue, while they had invested in biotechnology researchers like almost every institution, they had also kept plant genetics and breeding as a curriculum choice. Today, Purdue is one of the only colleges in the country that offer this course of study to undergraduates.
That still didn't solve the more immediate problem of turning out masters and doctors degree students who could become conventional plant breeders with either private companies, universities, or USDA. The well was quickly running dry of possible candidates for these highly specific positions.
That's when private companies agreed to help put up part of the funding to support more graduate students in plant breeding. At Purdue, the official program now underway is the Partnership for Research and Education in Plant Breeding and Genetics at Purdue University. The first handful of students have already graduated and quickly found employment within the industry. Most of those being supported by the program are still doing graduate studies.
Partners for the program in Indiana to support this training at Purdue include USDA, Ag Alumni Seeds, AgReliant Genetics, Beck's Superior Hybrids, ConAgra Foods, Dow AgroSciences, Indiana Corp Improvement Association, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the Untied Soybean Board, the China Scholarship Council and Purdue itself.
Part of the requirement for students in the program is to complete an internship in a corporate setting. The idea is to produce a new crop of plant breeders who understand both conventional breeding techniques, and have a grasp for the traits side of things brought to the table by biotechnology.
At the beginning of 2011, 22 students were part of the Partnership program at Purdue.
Dean of the College of Ag Jay Akridge has supported the effort by hiring new faculty over the past few years that now work with these students. Purdue's faculty in Agronomy now includes two corn breeders. Herb Ohm, the legendary small grains breeder with USDA, is still very active on promoting the plant breeding program at Purdue.