MALTA, Ill. — A new incubation center for innovation designed to bring research and development close to farmers is now operating in northern Illinois.
“Syngenta has assembled across North America key innovation hubs where we do a lot of the development work that goes into products that we develop for farmers,” said Warren Kruger, head of Field Crops Seeds Development for North America, during the grand opening of the Syngenta Seeds R&D Innovation Center near Malta.
“Malta is strategically placed as part of that ecosystem because it’s a great opportunity for us to bring research and development very close to our customers,” Kruger said. “We want to make sure farmers can touch, feel and see the research and development that we’re doing.”
The center includes 88 acres and a 100,000-square-foot facility with laboratories and seed processing space.
“The way we innovate is very different than years ago because we are no longer a group of plant breeders in the field,” said Trevor Hohls, global head of Seeds Development. “We are working with genomics, automation engineering, analytics and data science.”
Syngenta plans to showcase their products to farmers in the courtyard area of the innovation center.
“In the virtual reality lab we can demonstrate our products in the offseason, as well,” Hohls said. “It’s also a tool for us to model cool data science our team is working on.”
“Malta allows us to demonstrate technology in the environment where we’re going to deploy our products,” said Judd Maxwell, head of Corn Product Placement.
“It can take 15 years to develop products, but with all the innovation, we’re trying to shorten the cycle so we can meet the needs of a changing environment and changing farming practices,” Maxwell said.
“We test over 1 million products every year across the Corn Belt to see how they react in different environments,” he said. “Once we go to commercial stage we don’t stop evaluating our products. We put them in different management practices to further enhance our insights of these products.”
Syngenta has reinvented its breeding process of seeds over the last few years, Maxwell said.
“We’ve doubled the diversity within our breeding pipelines, which allows us more genetic diversity, and we’ve shortened our product development cycle by two years through innovations,” he said.
“Trait assessment is one of the critical components of our seed pipeline,” said Charlie Baxter, head of Traits and Regulatory. “It delivers the data points that allow us to understand the different characteristics of our corn and soybean plants.”
“One of the key things Malta gives us is the ability to work year-around to characterize the plants’ response to disease and insect control traits,” Baxter said.
The Syngenta researchers produce insects and fungal pathogens in the trait assessment laboratory.
“We will produce about 4,000 pounds of inoculate per year and 10 million insects,” Baxter said.
Pests and diseases have a significant impact on corn and soybean production.
“The average seasonal loss is 500 million bushels of corn and 200 million bushels of soybeans and some seasons it’s much higher,” said the leader responsible for regulatory affairs and trait development. “We use natural infestations in the field and we challenge the plants with pathogens we produce here.”
The new center, Baxter said, is important for the Syngenta biotech pipeline.
“At different stages of our biotech development process, we screen genes and variants of those genes for different proteins they produce. We also screen plants expressing different levels of those genes,” he said.
“With genotyping, we’re bringing the power of genomics to breeders to accelerate our breeding pipeline,” said Tim Symanietz, head of North America Genotyping. “We receive samples and give data back to breeders to make decisions.”
The lab process of looking at DNA starts in the field with a sample.
“We can test a leaf or seed from all types of crops,” said Sara Wollner, Syngenta principal scientist. “We get samples from all over the world.”
“The corn genome has 2 billion base pairs or nucleotides and the soybean plant has 1.1 billion,” Symanietz said. “We use sequencing to tell us the order of the nucleotides and one base tells us if a plant is susceptible or resistant to a pest such as soybean cyst nematode.”
“Understanding genetics and the interaction with the environment is key to understanding our products,” said Steve Wilkens, agronomy manager for Golden Harvest.
“The genetic component is pivotal, but just one cog in the whole system,” Wilkens said. “With seeding rate, we can make or break a hybrid if we don’t make the right recommendation.”
Other considerations include decisions such as the use of fungicides or the amount of nitrogen that is applied.
“Understanding how to manage on a hybrid-by-hybrid basis is pivotal to the success of the hybrid,” Wilkens said.
“We can take high yield genetics and make them better when we utilize all the data that comes to us from this location,” he said.
It is not always about adding more, the agronomy manager said.
“A lot of this is about placement, timing and doing better with what we have,” Wilkens said.
“Understanding genetics, environment, management and delivering it to the grower are driving results,” he said. “That’s what this site is all about, bringing that level of knowledge in a way the grower can use it and help make their farms more profitable.”