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Even Monsanto is Slowly Moving Away from Unpredictable & Risky Gene-Splicing to Marker Assisted Breeding

ST. LOUIS (AP) – When Monsanto Co. developed its newest strain of engineered soybeans, the company didn't use gene splicing. It used math.

Monsanto has touted the Vistive soybean as a scientific breakthrough because it is ready-made for processing into healthier food oils that are low in trans fats.

But the secret recipe behind Vistive doesn't include genetic material from bacteria or other organisms that Monsanto uses to develop plants that grow pesticide among other traits.

Instead, there is an enormous numbers game, a complex system of data analysis, gene screening and a transcontinental network of greenhouses churning out seeds every day of the year.

Following the path of Vistive's development – from a marketing idea at Monsanto headquarters in suburban St. Louis to the soybean fields where it was first planted this year – shows how the world's biggest seed company is changing the rules of crop production.

By many measures, the Vistive bean was developed through traditional breeding – mating one plant with another, again and again, until the offspring contain desired traits. But Monsanto applied new technologies to the age-old process, drawing on techniques the company developed over a decade of splicing genes.

The techniques shaved at least three years off the process of moving Vistive from the drawing board to the marketplace, said Monsanto Vice President David Stark.

Although Monsanto is known around the world for making genetically engineered plants – derided as "Frankenfood" by critics – it is focusing more than ever on developing new plants through breeding.

"I think the thing that's emerging in our business, particularly in the last year and I think in the next few years, is the importance of breeding," Monsanto Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant told stock analysts earlier this month.

About 1 percent of new crops this year were developed with advanced breeding techniques, and that should increase to 5 percent or 6 percent by 2008, Grant said.

The Vistive bean traces its roots to 2002. At the time, most of Monsanto's seeds benefited farmers, with traits like pest resistance. Stark wanted to develop a plant that had direct benefit for consumers.

"I was out talking to the food industry about biotechnology, trying to determine what they want from a company like Monsanto," Stark recalled. "One of the things that was recurring was that, well, it looks like trans fats could be really important."

Concern was mounting about trans fats contributing to unhealthy cholesterol levels. But it's not easy to squeeze trans fats out of the industrial food system. Trans fats are made when oils are partially hydrogenated, a process that stops oils from naturally degenerating. This gives the oils a longer shelf life.

Stark thought there was a solution – breed a soybean with oils that are already stable enough to have a long shelf life. Cutting out hydrogenation would mean cutting out trans fats.

Figuring out how to do that falls to the likes of Monsanto scientist Pradip Das.

Das runs Monsanto's crop analytics laboratory, where analysts test everything from the starch content of a corn kernel to the genetic map of a cotton plant.

Das said scientists there knew that a key reason soybean oil degenerates is the presence of linolenic acid. Breeding beans low in the acid could reduce the need for hydrogenation.

Genetic splicing wasn't necessary to derive such a bean. Researchers at Iowa State University developed a "low-lin" soybean years ago, according to the American Soybean Association. Such beans contain about 1 percent linolenic acid in their oil as opposed to 8 percent in standard beans.

But just because there was already a strain of low-lin beans didn't mean Monsanto could simply sell it. Commercial soybean and corn plants are like thoroughbred racehorses, with a long genetic history that emphasizes high yields over all. This is crucial for big commodity farmers, who typically operate with razor-thin profit margins and large debt payments.

Melding the low-lin strain of soybean into Monsanto's line of commercial crops could have taken many years, said Joe Byrum, Monsanto's trait integration team leader.

Mixing a low-lin bean with a premium soybean produces offspring that still have a lot of genetic "junk," as Byrum puts it. The goal is to find that one-in-a-million seed with the low-lin trait and nothing else but the premium genes.

"It's a needle in a haystack," Byrum said. "So if I have a tool that can go in and pick out the needle every time, that's very efficient."

The tool Byrum uses to pick out the needle is called a genetic marker. Using the technology, Byrum can take a leaf sample from a soybean sprout and instantly tell if the seed contains the low-lin trait.

But breeding is a game of big numbers, Byrum said. It's a matter of finding the right trait hundreds of thousands of times until the offspring is narrowed down to the right cross.

Monsanto has sped up this numbers game at its laboratory in Ankeny, Iowa. The lab is a hub for Monsanto's global chain of greenhouses. Seeds are sprouted there daily, eliminating winter downtime, letting Monsanto breed about three soybean generations annually, Byrum said.

Genetic samples are taken the moment a seed spouts – whether in the Midwest, Puerto Rico or Hawaii – and then sent back to Ankeny. Byrum's team analyzes them using genetic markers, then quickly crunching the results through computers to determine which seeds are winners.

The right strain was found, and Vistive is planted on about 500,000 acres in the United States this year, according to Monsanto.

Grant told stock analysts the process that made Vistive could be used to integrate any number of traits into Monsanto's line of crops.

"We're looking at accessing Genetic diversity globally and using those crosses to produce seeds that run faster, that perform better," he said.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)