Sunday, March 6, 2011

Echos of Henry Wallace

Last summer I marveled at the speed of Pioneer's corn research department when it comes to planting plots.  Thanks to technology, they can plant 10 acres of hybrid evaluation plots in a matter of  2-3 hours.  Cathy worked in corn research after graduating from college (and yes dear, that was only yesterday).  It would take them 2 days to plant a similar size location

The result of the efforts of our corn breeders is reflected in the slide below.  You can see the improvement in average corn yields is also accelerating at an amazing pace.

When smart folks like the founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred, Henry Wallace, began breeding hybrid corn in the 1930's they were starting from scratch.  It was like baking a cake with no recipe, but they did make progress by developing inbred parents which made better hybrids.  This was an amazing discovery for its time.
Corn breeders have built on the foundation that Henry Wallace laid down to take corn hybrid performance to the level it is today.  When you compare modern hybrids to the hybrids from the 30's you can see the improvement in agronomic characteristics like stalk quality and root strength.

Today's skill testing question.  "Is there any point in keeping old corn genetic material around?"  Be honest.  What could possibly be learned from the inbreds and hybrids that were developed 75 years ago?  They are garbage compared to modern corn genetics and we need to keep looking forward.  Right?

Wrong.  Smart forward looking people recognize the need to take a look over their shoulder once in a while.
Pioneer has kept a seed bank of every inbred developed by their corn breeders since Henry Wallace's time.  Now, thanks to technology, researchers have catalogued every gene on every chromosome of this genetic library.  They can go back and pluck useful genes from 75 years ago and incorporate them into today's hybrids.  They do this with things like gene markers and molecular genetics which I will not understand no matter how many times it gets explained to me.

This is a shot depicting the modern hybrid, 38N88, within Pioneer's library of genetics.  Each coloured spot represents an inbred parent.  The male parents are pink and the female parents are blue.  Gene jockeys are weird, I was brought up to think boys are blue.  The pedigree of 38N88 stretches back to Henry Wallace's time.  The specific genes that make 38N88 successful as a hybrid are all catalogued. 

The next generation of hybrids will benefit from this genetic data base. New exciting technologies, like drought tolerance and nitrogen use efficiency will be incorporated into the gene bank. 
The future is bright, thanks to Henry Wallace.

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