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Hybrid wheat's comeback

Nearly 90 years after DuPont Pioneer successfully commercialized the first hybrid corn plants, the company plans to revolutionize the wheat industry in the same way.

Pioneer announced its intent in February to develop wheat hybrids, with an eye toward improving wheat yields at least 15 percent through the hybrid process.

"Wheat is such an important crop around the world," says Jim Borel, executive vice president, DuPont. "If we're going to feed 9 billion people sustainably by 2050, we're going to need to improve productivity for farmers everywhere."

Wheat is grown on more acres around the world than any other crop, and global production of wheat is second only to corn. Yet, advances in wheat variety development have lagged behind variety/hybrid and trait development from crops such as corn, soybeans and canola; all of which compete for acreage with wheat.

The Secret of Hybrid Vigor

Wheat hybrids can achieve a yield bump as much as 20% over conventional wheat varieties, according to Forrest Chumley, chief executive officer of Heartland Plant Innovations, a Manhattan, Kansas-based wheat technology firm. That's because of hybrid vigor, or heterosis, in which the offspring of two wheat parents will have superior yield potential, Chumley says.

Developing an efficient and economical means of hybridizing wheat, however, is a challenge that has eluded seed companies before. Monsanto's HybriTech hybrid wheat program enjoyed limited commercial success in the 1990s. The challenge has been to create wheat hybrids inexpensively and efficiently enough to make buying new seed every year cost-effective for farmers.

The Hybridization Process

In theory, creating a hybrid is simple. Select male plants are mated with female plants from a different genetic background, resulting in offspring with yield-boosting hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor doesn’t persist after the first generation; however, which means that new hybrid seeds must be produced and planted each year. In the case of corn, yields have increased dramatically since Pioneer first commercialized hybrids in 1935. But that's because hybridizing corn is a fairly simple process: much of the work can be done mechanically or through genetics. The days of detasseling corn by hand -- long the stuff of drudgery that put many a young person through college -- are all but over, thanks to the use of genetic male sterility or specialized machines that can do the work.

Hybrids in wheat, however, is a different story.

"There is no simple, low-labor, high efficiency method to hybridize wheat," explains HPI's Chumley. "Hybrid wheat seeds almost have to be hand-crafted. To this point, no one has figured out how to hybridize wheat on a large scale."

Scientists at Pioneer believe they've found a way to create wheat hybrids that are economically viable and reliable on a commercial scale, based on genetic hybridization platforms the company has developed over the last two decades, Borel says. Additional genetic discoveries from these lines may lead to additional traits, all of which can help wheat farmers be more productive.

"Our hope would be that over time, we find ways to make wheat more drought tolerant, more efficient nitrogen use and other things that come down the road," he explains. "But the key is to first unlock germplasm and create hybrids to start that process."

Value to Farmers

Wheat growers have long been able to save back and replant seed. If hybrid wheat comes to fruition – and Borel stresses that the first commercial hybrids will take at least a decade – farmers will no longer be able to keep and replant seed and experience the same yield performance. This is the same situation as with hybrid corn.

Therefore, it will be imperative for Pioneer wheat hybrids to provide enough value to farmers that they are willing to buy new seed, every year.

"We recognize that unless a new product provides significant value, we're not going to sell much. It's simple. Farmers need to have choices. If the hybrids don't create enough value for the farmer to justify that purchase every year, they won't do it. We understand that," Borel says.

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