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Partners in Success

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Posted Jan. 14, 2010

Collaborations are moving scientific and agricultural research to the farmer's doorstep and the world
switchgrass field trial results
Hem Bhandari, Ph.D., (center) research scientist, and Malay Saha, Ph.D., (center, right), associate professor, discuss switchgrass field trial results with representatives from Ceres, Inc.

Winston Churchill once said, "If we are together, nothing is impossible." Such are the relationships forged between Noble Research Institute and its collaborators across the country and around the globe to advance research, generate productive solutions and develop commercially viable innovations for agricultural producers.

While the Noble Research Institute collaborates with countless universities on research, it relies upon its commercial relationships to move new and improved plant varieties to the marketplace. Three specific entities play key roles in bringing the final product of Noble Research Institute agricultural research and plant science to the public: Forage Genetics International, the world leader in value-added alfalfa genetics; Ceres Inc., a premier developer of energy crops for biopower and biofuels; and Grasslanz Technology Limited, a research and development company dedicated to growing food and textile farming within New Zealand.

Improving Alfalfa
The Noble Research Institute's association with Forage Genetics International, a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O' Lakes Inc., began a decade ago when Forage Genetics purchased the assets of a bankrupt company that had an existing research agreement with the Noble Research Institute.

"We specifically bought the assets because we were interested in the collaboration that had been formalized with the Noble Research Institute," said Forage Genetics President Dr. Mark McCaslin, who is based in Minneapolis. "Two days after the transaction was completed, we flew to Ardmore to discuss continuing and expanding that collaboration."

When the relationship began, the primary research focus was lignin. Lignin is a component of plant cell walls that makes them hard to degrade and, therefore, more difficult for livestock to digest. A team led by Richard Dixon, D. Phil., Noble Research Institute senior vice president and director of the Plant Biology Division, identified the steps in making the lignin molecule and isolated the genes that control such steps. "By knocking out any one step, the plant produces less lignin," Dixon explained. "We have done that to successfully develop lines of alfalfa with lower levels of lignin in stems and leaves. That trait has been introduced into Forage Genetics' alfalfa varieties and tested in different parts of the United States."

The technology is far enough along that Forage Genetics has initiated the deregulation process necessary to offer the improved varieties to commercial growers. "It took 10 years to develop those varieties, and it will take another five to six years to deregulate them," McCaslin explained. "But 15 years is not atypical for going from proof of concept to commercialization."

A second Noble Research Institute/Forage Genetics project has yet to reach the proof-of-concept stage, but is well under way. "About six years ago, Forage Genetics told us it was interested in a solution to pasture bloat, a condition often attributable to alfalfa," Dixon said. "Because of the high protein content in alfalfa, grazing animals can produce excessive amounts of methane gas that can build up and cause discomfort or even death."

Tannins are chemical compounds within plants that can bind to proteins, causing them to be digested more slowly, which reduces gas production. Less bloat means more meat and milk, and less urinary excretion of nitrogen. "The catch is that tannins in alfalfa are expressed in the seed coat. Our job is to move tannin production to the stems and leaves of the alfalfa plant," Dixon explained.

He said that plant breeders have tried to get tannins into alfalfa by conventional breeding, but haven't succeeded. "We need biotechnology to do it. We know that tannins can be engineered into research plants, but we need to prove that concept in alfalfa. When we do, we will have a very important trait."

The Noble Research Institute/Forage Genetics collaboration continues to expand. "What's exciting to me is how broad it is," McCaslin said. "Our work with Dr. Dixon on lignin and tannin modification is basic research where we ask, 'What can we do to make alfalfa a more valuable forage crop?' With Dr. Joe Bouton (professor of the forage breeding lab), we take that a step further by asking, 'How can we work together on breeding?' And with Assistant Professor Dr. Maria Monteros, we're working on molecular markers to speed up that development."

Dixon is equally enthusiastic, explaining: "Not only does Forage Genetics provide a commercial outlet for our technology, the company also works closely with us to develop it. As Forage Genetics moves our technology into alfalfa breeding programs, we receive valuable feedback that helps us better target the basic science behind it. It is a mutually beneficial relationship."

Switchgrass: Energy's Future
In 2006, the Noble Research Institute and California-based Ceres Inc. established a strategic relationship to develop and commercialize energy crops made from switchgrass. Initial projects expanded the Noble Research Institute's conventional and molecular breeding program with Ceres' markers and other genomics technologies.

"Ceres has been in the biotech traits discovery and development area since 1997," said Dr. Jeff Gwyn, the company's vice president of breeding and genomics. "In the mid-2000s, we decided to advance into areas of energy crops. As a biotech company, however, we didn't have access to germplasm varieties and looked to the important players in that area."

The Noble Research Institute was one of those players. At the time, Joe Bouton, Ph.D., served as director of the Forage Improvement Division. His reputation as a plant breeder was a leading factor in Ceres selecting the Noble Research Institute to develop switchgrass for biofuel and bioenergy applications. "Bouton, along with the entire Noble Research Institute team, is renowned in his field and has an excellent history of improving perennial grasses," Gwyn said. "The high performing switchgrass plants they develop are robust with high biomass yields and good biofuel properties. That was attractive to us."

In addition to expanding the Noble Research Institute's conventional and molecular breeding programs, the collaboration provides Ceres with access to its extensive breeding infrastructure and an exclusive license to elite switchgrass cultivars.

The collaboration already has resulted in Ceres licensing and commercializing the world's first switchgrass varieties developed specifically for bioenergy production. To date, the company has launched three switchgrass varieties, as well as several sorghum varieties, under the trade name Blade Energy Crops®.

"We are developing varieties that will serve the entire North American market, certainly," Gwyn said. "But the climate in which switchgrass grows on this continent is similar to the climate in other places in the world, so there also will be a global market for our products."

In addition to world-class expertise in varietal development, Gwyn said, the Noble Research Institute offers field experience and an understanding of the practical needs of agricultural producers.

"With its breeding, agronomy and practical educational expertise, the Noble Research Institute offers growers a complete support package, which will be needed as the industry moves to larger scale projects," Gwyn said.

Mutual Trust and Respect
The Noble Research Institute's current collaboration with Grasslanz Technology Limited is the consequence of a long-standing relationship between the Noble Research Institute's Joe Bouton and New Zealand's AgResearch Limited, Grasslanz's parent. Bouton's work with AgResearch began in 1993 when he was at the University of Georgia. This history established a basis for a new, productive interaction between Grasslanz Technology Limited, a research and commercialization subsidiary of AgResearch and Noble when Bouton came to head the Forage Improvement Division a decade ago.

"The relationship between Grasslanz Technology and the Noble Research Institute has been built on mutual trust and respect for the strengths of both organizations, at the researcher-to-researcher level and at the senior management level," said John Caradus, Ph.D., Grasslanz Chief Executive.

The initial aim, Caradus said, was to link AgResearch's strengths in endophyte research and clover breeding with the Noble Research Institute's breeding programs to provide better forages for farmers in Oklahoma and the Southern Great Plains.

Current projects include:
Use of novel endophytes (a bacterium or fungus that lives within a plant for at least part of its life without causing apparent disease) that provide better persistence to perennial grasses.
Breeding drought-tolerant varieties of Mediterranean tall fescues.
Breeding improved white clover, red clover and annual legumes.
Mapping and researching the biology of endophytes.

Several Noble Research Institute/Grasslanz collaborations have yielded products that will soon be in the marketplace. Caradus said a tall fescue that contains an AgResearch novel endophyte is expected to be commercially released in 2011. Two legume cultivars are undergoing final testing prior to release, and another two varieties are about a year behind them.

"Much of the research has a local focus on assisting Oklahoma farmers to improve the profitability of their farming systems," Caradus said. "But we also are focused on assessing the potential benefits of new technologies we develop together across other international markets."