Full speed ahead into the science of the seed

Driving on Monsanto's main campus in St. Louis requires precision. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)
Driving on Monsanto's main campus in St. Louis requires precision. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)

Ag giant Monsanto must take ingenuity seriously — it has a whole line of seeds called Genuity, after all — and its thirst for the unique apparently influences even the roadways on its campus.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the 17 miles per hour speed limit signs are designed to be the lasting impression a visitor takes from the company’s campus in Creve Coeur, Mo., just outside St. Louis, but they do stand out. Apparently other areas are marked with 23 MPH, though I didn’t see that sign (and I was assured that in front of the company’s child care center the limit is a safe, if banal, 5 MPH). But I wasn’t there to analyzes road signs.

Curiosity about seeds prompted my visit to Monsanto, as well as an earlier visit to a Pioneer research center in Dallas Center, Iowa.

Ever since I reported on Syngenta’s Artesian drought-resistant corn, one of my first pieces for this job, I’ve been trying to better understand seed science. Or, more specifically, the relationship between seed science and technology. You see, when my drought-resistant corn piece was posted on NPR’s website, and even in the comments on my own Facebook page, listeners wanted to know why the story didn’t talk about genetically modified organisms (GMO, also called genetically engineered and genetically transformed).  The layers of explanation that would have been necessary to bring GMO into that story made the subject an easy one to cut.

Also, the topic wasn’t germane to that story and here’s why: In Syngenta and Pioneer’s drought-resistant products that particular trait was not genetically engineered. In Monsanto’s, which wasn’t yet commercially available in 2012, that trait was genetically modified. The thing is, the Pioneer and Syngenta hybrids containing the drought-resistant trait also typically contained other traits that were genetically engineered — for insect or herbicide resistance, for example. In fact, one person at Monsanto has since told me that over 90 percent of corn and soybean seeds commercially available in this country contain at least one — but often more than one — genetically modified trait.

So that left me wondering a few things about seeds:

  • How did scientists achieve the transformation of genes?
  • What motivated them in the first place?
  • Where do the “donor” genes (so to speak) come from?
  • What's on the horizon for seed science?

Over the past few months, I’ve been looking for answers. In addition to industry scientists, I’ve talked with academic researchers. I got the long view from industry veterans. I’ve even read parts of seed science text books.

None of this gives me a thorough understanding of molecular biology or corn breeding, but all of it makes me much more conversant in the language of seeds. Soon, I’ll have radio stories and more web-based information to share.


More: Eager eyes on drought-resistant corn