Alan Krivanek, a tomato breeder for Monsanto, dons a white protective suit, wipes his feet on a mat of disinfectant and enters a greenhouse to survey 80,000 seedlings. He is armed with a spreadsheet that will tell him which ones are likely to resist a slew of diseases. The rest he will discard.
Krivanek, 42, is part of a new generation of plant breeders who are transforming the 10,000-year history of plant selection. And their work has quietly become the cutting-edge technology among today’s major plant biotech companies. Instead of spending decades physically identifying plants that will bear fruits of the desired color and firmness, stand up to drought, and more, breeders are able to speed the process through DNA screening.
When his tomato plants were just a week old, technicians manually punched a hole in each seedling to get leaf tissue that was taken to a nearby lab, converted into a chemical soup and then scanned for genetic markers linked to desired traits.
Krivanek uses the information to keep just 3 percent of the seedlings and grow them until they fruit this spring, when he can evaluate fully grown plants, keep a few hundred, sow their seeds and then screen those plants.
“I’m improving my odds. Maybe I can introduce to market a real super-hybrid in five years,” Krivanek said. “A predecessor might take a whole career.”
The technology — called marker-assisted or molecular breeding — is far removed from the better-known and more controversial field of genetic engineering, in which a plant or animal can receive genes from a different organism.
Marker-assisted breeding has been embraced not only by the multinational biotech companies here in California’s Central Valley but also by plant scientists in government, research universities and nongovernmental organizations fervently seeking new, overachieving crops. The goal is to sustainably feed an expanding global population while dealing with the extremes of climate change.
Read the full, original article: Trait by trait, plant scientists swiftly weed out bad seeds through marker-assisted breeding