ROCKFORD, Ill. — The description of the activity sounds like a project from a doctorate-level biotechnology course — and it could be and probably was for some of the researchers at Monsanto studying not just plants, but seeds and their genes and chromosomes.

“The tools that are enabling this from our standpoint are advanced breeding technology, biotechnology and the technology advances that are coming in terms of gene discovery and so forth,” John Fietsam, corn yield optimization product development manager for Monsanto, told an audience of Channel seedsmen and farmers at a Channel Achievement Series winter meeting in northern Illinois.

Fietsam said advanced technology that allows researchers to map more than 100 plant genomes in a day, compared to one genome per decade in 2001, translates to better ways for farmers to battle plant diseases.

“We’ve actually identified a range of a chromosome that across genetic backgrounds is encoding for improved anthracnose stalk rot ratings. Generally, we’re seeing about a two-point ratings improvement, and that can be integrated across genetics,” he said.

Fietsam said in the future that means that a trait for resistance to that disease can be combined with existing desirable traits.

“The next, best-yielding product to come through in the Channel lineup that maybe would have been rated a six, in the future we’d be able to offer that same set of genetics, that same yield potential with a two-point rating improvement for anthracnose stalk rot, which happens to be the most aggressive and widespread stalk rot pathogen in the U.S.,” he said.

Another disease that farmers are actively managing for in the central Corn Belt is gray leaf spot disease and that, too, could be alleviated in a trait.

“As we’ve looked at the footprint for gray leaf spot, it is certainly one of the most significant pests we deal with from a disease perspective in the U.S., and as we talk to our farmer customers, it is the one that you are most aware of and most actively managing for, at least here in the central Corn Belt,” Fietsam said.

The advanced gene research going on could help farmers one day not just plant corn with traits for high yield and good standability, but also resistance to gray leaf spot.

“This is a similar project, identifying alleles that, over time, are going to allow us to shift germplasm resistance toward above-average scores, moving from a five to a four to a three,” Fietsam said.

Yield is never left out of consideration — even when the focus is on finding traits for disease resistance.

“Within the mindset of product selection is really our first approach in delivering a biotech yield selection for corn, what we call a higher-yielding corn. This is a single-gene approach that, over a broad genetic background, is showing a yield increase. Generally, that’s driven through ear size and improved ear consistency,” Fietsam said.

He said the focus is on how systems work together and making sure that all factors are considered when selecting for various traits.

“As we get further and further toward market, we think about the interactions, the system, how does improved ear consistency play out when we get in a stress scenario, when we get into population management and pushing for that next plant per acre,” he said.