Why Mechanical Engineers Work at Monsanto

In-house inventions speed gene screening.

Published on: Sep 25, 2007

You expect to find plant breeders, maybe chemical engineers and perhaps biologists, entomologists and the like working for an ag seed and traits company like Monsanto. But what use would that company have for mechanical engineers? Aren't they the folks who build structures, equipment and roads?

Visitors to the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Ill,, last month who toured Monsanto's exhibit received an inkling of why Monsanto has a healthy number of mechanical engineers on staff. The company displayed state-of-the art machines used to screen for genes without damaging the seed.

Farm Progress editors touring Monsanto's labs last week got a firsthand look at those machines in action. One of them, a seed chipper, removes a minute piece, more or less dust, from a soybean without damaging the viability of the seed. Breeders could still plant the seed and grow it normally.

As a matter of fact, that's exactly what happens. The tiny pieces of soybean from hundreds of thousands of soybeans run through the machine are 'fingerprinted' for DNA in another process. If the breeder is looking for soybeans with a certain gene, he can discover which ones have it, and note what other traits that bean possesses. The bottom line is he can select promising single seeds to grow without having to grow them all out. Once he determines what he wants, he simply tells the employees in the lab, and they retrieve the exact seed that the sample came from. Then he can grow it out and move on with the breeding process from there.

The seed chipper machine was designed and invented 'in-house,' Monsanto officials say. It's just one of several machines invented there to help in their search for genes that could impart benefit to agronomic crops, particularly corn, soybeans, cotton and canola- the target crops for Monsanto's research.

While the 'gee whiz' factor of the machines may have impressed farmers at the Farm Progress Show who were shown actual machines, just not in use, and is still impressive watching the machine in an actual lab, it's what it could mean for future development that's truly worth watching. Such technology allows researchers to screen for genes like breeders screen for individual plants when attempting to make a new inbred breeding line. The theory is that the more material that can be screened, the more likely that a gene of significance will be found.

While Monsanto first introduced traits that protect corps from insects and impart herbicide tolerance, much of the focus is now on quality traits, such as improving ethanol yield, or delivering soybeans that can produce oil rivaling olive oil from a health standpoint. Many of these products aren't on the market yet, but the success of early releases in this area, such as Vistive soybean, leading to low linolenic oils that major restaurant chains are adopting to please health-conscious consumers, bodes well for the future.