Syngenta has high hopes for the commercial prospects of its new breed of corn, developed by scientists in Research Triangle Park, that resists damage inflicted by an especially destructive pest – the corn rootworm beetle.
Damage caused by the rootworm beetle costs U.S. farmers more than $1 billion a year.
“This is the most destructive insect in U.S. corn production,” said Dirk Benson, a Syngenta project manager. “Controlling it ... has tremendous benefits to American agriculture.”
The Switzerland-based agribusiness giant announced Thursday that its new, genetically modified Agrisure Duracade corn has been cleared for sale by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its final regulatory hurdle. The product was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“When farmers go to buy corn seeds in the fall for planting in 2014, Duracade will be available,” said Syngenta spokesman Steven Goldsmith. The company employs about 400 workers at its biotechnology research arm in RTP and also has about 700 workers in Greensboro.
Syngenta is the world’s No. 3 purveyor of seeds, behind Monsanto and DuPont. It’s also a leader in crop-protection products such as insecticides and herbicides.
“We expect this will be a significant contributor to the future growth of Syngenta’s corn portfolio for many years to come,” Goldsmith said. In 2012 Syngenta sales of corn and soybean seeds topped $1.8 billion, a 25 percent increase over 2011.
Damage from rootworm is most prevalent in the Midwest corn belt. “It’s really not an issue in North Carolina,” Goldsmith said.
Syngenta researchers Eric Chen and Hope Hart, both of whom work in RTP, are the principal scientists behind Agrisure Duracade, Goldsmith said.
Syngenta discovered the protein behind Agrisure Duracade in 1999 and has been developing it, and ushering it through the regulatory process, ever since.
“It’s a huge dollar investment, certainly more than $100 million to bring one of these products from discovery to commercialization,” Benson said.
Tests of Agrisure Duracade have shown that it’s superior to prior generations of corn designed to resist rootworm, including those produced by Syngenta.
Agrisure Duracade contains a protein that kills rootworm beetles before they hatch from eggs and feed on the corn roots. The reduction of rootworm beetles is 10 times better than prior generations of rootworm-resistant corn, Benson said.
Agrisure Duracade also incorporates the company’s earlier generations of rootworm-resistance traits to counteract the rootworm beetle’s ability to develop immunity to any one trait, Goldsmith said.
Agrisure Decade marks the fourth new breed of corn designed to enable farmers to grow more – and better – corn per acre that Syngenta has launched in the past half-dozen years. All four were discovered and developed in RTP, including Agrisure Artesian, introduced in July 2010, which was the first of a new generation of drought-resistant corn.
Agrisure Duracade was born when Chen came up with the idea of taking a rootworm-resistant protein previously developed by Syngenta and altering it in order to make it effective against other pests. That project flopped.
However, there was an unintended benefit: The altered protein snuffed out rootworm beetles in an entirely different way.
Next came the laborious, time-consuming task of inserting the new protein into the DNA of thousands of corn plants to come up with the most effective product.
“There is a lot of weeding out, if you will – pardon the pun – that I think a lot of people don’t ... realize,” Hart said.