Crop Tech Corner

By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter

ST. LOUIS (DTN) — This bi-monthly column condenses the latest news in the field of crop technology, research and products.

GE WHEAT FAILS FIRST TEST IN UK

The quest for GE wheat was dealt another setback this month, when UK scientists revealed that an aphid-repellant wheat variety didn’t hold up under field conditions. The five-year venture was a lesson in the difference between laboratory results and real-life field outcomes that often plagues agricultural research. Scientists at Rothamsted Research had genetically engineered wheat plants to produce a pheromone that alerts the plant to the aphids’ presence and helps repel it. The genetic engineering itself was a success, a press release from Rothamsted Research noted. The plants produced plenty of the pheromone, with no discernible cost to their performance and yield. And in the lab, these alarm-sounding wheat plants were very successful at repelling aphids. However, under field conditions, the scientists did not find any significant difference in aphid control between the GE wheat and normal wheat plants.

The "why" part of the GE wheat failure may yield some helpful insights for future attempts to breed self-protecting wheat, the scientists noted. One potential problem was the growing season — the GE wheat was tested in fields during a wet summer without serious aphid infestations, which makes the likelihood of getting statistically significant results lower. Another possible explanation is that the aphids became dulled to the plants’ continuous release of the pheromone — not unlike weather-weary Midwesterners who stop heeding constant tornado alarms. The scientists are now considering tweaking the plants so that pheromone would only be released in the presence of aphids or a heavy infestation.

For more information on the study, see the Rothamsted press release here: http://bit.ly/…, and the published study here: http://bit.ly/….

UNLOCKING THE SOYBEAN SEED

Purdue University scientists have cracked a 5,000-year-old mystery that could benefit modern soybean growers. Wild soybean seeds maintain a hard, impermeable coating that protects them from the elements and allows them to wait for just the right moment to germinate. Unfortunately, it also prevents the uniform, predictable seed germination that controlled agriculture requires. Many millennia ago, humans first domesticated wild soybeans by selecting soybean plants that germinated promptly and quickly — the ancestors of our modern soybean varieties. Now, Purdue researchers know exactly what genetic key those ancient humans were unknowingly selecting and preserving: a mutation on the gene GmHs1-1, which makes a soybean’s hard seed coating become soft and permeable.

Armed with this new knowledge, researchers hope to improve modern soybeans in a variety of ways, a Purdue University news release noted. For Southern and tropical growers, where soft-coated soybean seeds can quickly lose their viability in humid conditions post-harvest, hardier soybean seeds could be crafted using this gene. The gene could also be tweaked to improve how well soybeans and other legumes cook. Finally, the gene is associated with the calcium content of beans, so future research will search for a way to increase the nutritional value of soybeans, the press release said.

For more information, see the Purdue press release here: http://bit.ly/…, and the published study here: http://bit.ly/….

USDA INVESTS IN BIO-ENERGY SORGHUM

The Department of Energy has doled out $30 million to six different institutes to ramp up research on bioenergy sorghum projects through a federal agency called Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The projects are part of a government initiative called TERRA (Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture), and are located from the Southeast to the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

Among the grantees, Clemson University in South Carolina received $6 million to search for high-yielding bioenergy sorghum, aided by ground and aerial robotic technology that will help researchers gather data on their crop tests much more quickly. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis will use its $8 million grant to coordinate and comb through the results of bioenergy sorghum testing sites in five states across the country. The University of Illinois received $3.1 million to develop small, ground-crawling robots that will travel between sorghum rows and measure crop growth and performance.

For more information on the other grant winners, see this ARPA-E press release: http://1.usa.gov/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(PS/AG)