Beck's Blog

From Our Family Farm to Yours

CropTalk: Research by the Numbers

April 2021

Published on Thursday, April 1, 2021

6. That’s the number of years I had worked here at Beck’s before taking a true, in-depth tour of the biotech building here in Atlanta, IN. But earlier this year, a few members of our research team opened their doors and allowed me to follow them around for two hours as they explained the amazing work their teams do, day in and day out. We are lucky to have 101 beyond talented full-time employees (with 47 job titles among them) across 7 locations who dedicate their time and energy to bringing farmers highperforming, regional products quickly and efficiently.

There is a reason I avoided all science classes in college – so bear with me as I do my best to take you on a journey through one of the most unique and diverse breeding programs in the country. Here we go!

Beck’s corn breeders develop 60,000 new inbred lines each year. They use the dihaploid process, which is super in-depth and super confusing, but essentially allows them to develop new lines in 3 generations/cropping seasons vs. the 8 it takes through the traditional inbreeding process. By speeding the rate at which new lines are developed, Beck’s can produce quality products more efficiently than ever before.

Our trait conversion team converts a selected 1,200 of these new inbreds each year. The team’s goal is to take an inbred line that our breeders have developed and identified as “the one” and make that exact same inbred (but as a traited product) by inserting the desired traits without changing the genetics of the plant.

From young plants, hole-punched-sized samples of the leaves are sent to the lab where the plant’s DNA is extracted, isolated, and fingerprinted to identify the positive and negative genes. This process allows for high-performing parent lines to be developed. There are 2 robots utilized in this process, one of which is brand new and solely dedicated to DNA extraction. The older version of this machine could process 96 samples at one time which seems like a lot, but with the upgraded model, we can process 384 samples simultaneously!

Once extracted, the DNA is quantified and moved through an instrument that adds small amounts of the DNA to a 96- well plate for genotyping. The machine’s capacity allows them to run 6 plates per day, producing 576 samples. The samples are then added to “chips” to complete the genotyping process. Each chip can hold 24 samples that provides up to 10,000 data points, meaning nearly 5.8 million data points are produced 3 times/ week. After genotyping, the DNA moves to trait conversion/zygosity testing, where it goes through 36 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) “copying” cycles until it is exponentially amplified to billions of copies, a level where it can be evaluated for the desired traits.

That’s a LOT of data to analyze. So how do they do it? The DNA chip is moved through a scanning process that translates it into visual data, which is then translated into a readable format through a special software program. With this data, our breeders can evaluate markers along the chromosome for specific characteristics like plant height and use statistics to determine if that particular marker is associated with the desired trait. This helps the team identify which trait-positive plants to move forward in the trait conversion process.

Trait conversion (or cross-pollination) is completed in any one of our 10 greenhouses located at our headquarters. The inbred lines identified by the breeders are crossed with donor plants containing the desired traits. Typically, 3 traits are moved at once through conventional breeding methods. After the initial cross, the seed is harvested, grown out in flats, and then replanted as the new donor plant. Once planted, it is backcrossed for 3 to 4 generations until the plants are, at minimum, 97% identical to the original parent plant. This entire process is timeconsuming and usually requires 800 plants to be grown to save just 6.

Luckily, we have a fancy way of speeding up this process… embryo rescue. Anywhere from 16 to 22 days after pollination, the team will take ears grown in the greenhouse, extract embryos from them and grow them in a sterile environment. After 4 to 5 days, the embryos are large enough to be transplanted back into the greenhouse. With this process, we save 30 to 40 days at each generation, allowing the team to grow 4 generations of each inbred line in the greenhouse every year.

Whew. That was a ton of numbers and a lot of information. If I could summarize everything I learned during that two hour tour, it would be this; Beck’s has a modern, state-of-the-art breeding program that is run by an incredibly talented group of individuals who are dedicated to providing famers with the best regional products for their operation.

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Author: Maggie Holt

Categories: CropTalk, 2021

Tags: CropTalk, research

Maggie Holt
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Maggie Holt

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