Behind closed doors: plant breeding in corporations and universities

Behind closed doors: plant breeding in corporations and universities

Take an inside look at recent plant breeding developments.

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August 14, 2017

Recently a group of college students at the University of Florida (UF) who love plants came together to form the new Collegiate Plant Initiative (CPI).

The CPI consists of students of all academic backgrounds and provides a unique perspective — fresh eyes focused on issues surrounding the plant industry. The group loves horticulture and science, but their backgrounds span much more. They include writers, artists and social media managers, too.

The main objective is to connect college students, no matter their major, with new plants and teach them more about new opportunities in the plant industry.

In order to do this effectively, there is collaboration with industry leaders who advise on important topics; in return, the industry gets connected to the next generation of consumers and possible industry leaders.

The group's advisor, Dr. Dave Clark, was asked to write an article explaining what inspires a breeder and how that inspiration varies across the different environments of university, government, or private enterprise.

Since Dr. Clark has only bred plants in a university setting, he realized he needed some help to gain other perspectives, so he challenged the CPI leadership to work with him to address the topic. He provided some leads but essentially passed the baton to the CPI.

The author interviewed Dr. Richard Craig, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University for a historical perspective. Mr. Jason Jandrew, Director of Plant Breeding for PanAmerican Seed Company and, of course, Dr. David Clark were also interviewed.

Dr. Craig was famous for breeding Pelargoniums and served as mentor for Dave and Jason at Penn State, where Dave earned his Ph.D. and Jason earned his BS. Dave breeds coleus plants at UF and served as Jason's major advisor for his MS degree. Jason went on to become a breeder in the industry where he has made his mark by making huge breakthroughs with Viola and Calibrachoa.

These three vastly different personalities represent three generations of plant breeders who connected at Penn State, then went on their own journeys into the modern plant breeding world. Combined these three have almost 100 years of plant breeding experience.

"Traditional plant breeding has been around for centuries and has evolved rapidly over modern times, mainly due to technology advancements. Arguably, modern plant breeding has only been around for about 120 years since the acceptance of Gregor Mendel's three fundamental laws of genetics," said Dr. Craig (the three laws refer to segregation, independent assortment and dominance).

In the U.S., in the early days of plant breeding, much of the research and crop improvement work was conducted by scientists housed in newly formed land-grant universities or at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since then, the use of technologies and applications expanded to form new agricultural industries that fed the growing population and made their gardens more beautiful.

A better understanding of hybrid vigor is helping to feed the world through Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution. We learned that plants had value through plantsmen like Luther Burbank and George Washington Carver. We learned from Watson and Crick that DNA is the genetic code responsible for the diversity of life. We learned how to make transgenic crops with Agrobacterium (then) and CRISPR (now), leading to millions of acres of agronomic crops.

Now that we have learned how to do routine sequencing of plant genomes and manipulation of big data, plant breeders make gains faster and more efficiently than ever.

During all of this technological advancement, the subject of intellectual property in the plant world also shifted, as new products and procedures became available to plant breeders across the planet.

The Bayh-Dole Act, passed in 1980, allowed federally funded organizations such as universities to seek protection of discoveries and intellectual property, instead of assigning rights to the Federal government.

The assignment of Plant Breeder's Rights in 1978 (and revised in 1991) established plants as intellectual property, allowing plant breeders to pursue plant patents to protect their new cultivars. This led to the formation of technology licensing divisions in universities, and changed the level of competition for corporations and the way they interacted with others on new developments.

Added to this, the industry has also evolved with respect to the market of buying and selling plants. Plant consumers' interests constantly shift to fit newer and more varied tastes, and this has led to tremendous expansion in the number and types of garden plants now have available. These attitudes determine which plants will sell in stores and also provide breeders with insight as to which plants people love the most.

So, what exactly inspires a breeder and how does that inspiration vary across the different environments of university, government or private enterprise?

Academic and corporate breeders share several aspects of their jobs in the plant industry. They are all very passionate about what they do and they are very creative people. They are all modest about their science, but they are all broadly trained.

Most importantly, they all agreed that having vision and persistence to achieve goals were vital characteristics of good plant breeders.

When it comes to furthering the information and technology used to breed certain plant varieties, breeders tend to put their heads together and share their own experiences in order to help provide a solution to another individual's challenges with the breeding process.

Whether they give information about their failures or successes with their projects is a different story, but each person is supportive and wants to see the success of another breeder.

All agreed that corporate breeders tended to keep things more confidential and do not publish their results, whereas academic breeders must publish their results to deliver academic currency – the refereed scientific manuscript.

Academic breeders spend more time acquiring data to support a solid scientific discovery on a single crop, whereas corporate breeders spend less time taking data, and more time breeding multiple crops. Ultimately, both corporate and academic breeders patent their new plants, especially when they make major gains with their crops.

Observation and learning from mentors are key for both corporate and academic plant breeders. While many people learn the basics of plant breeding at a university, mentors help breeders develop their breeding techniques based on learning and watching others.

Sometimes they learn new methods they may want to incorporate into their own breeding programs, such as techniques for breeding screens or ways to cut down on the cost of time, space or labor. Other times they learn what they should not incorporate, because all good breeders have as many failed attempts as they have successes.

Either way, these moments formulate the personal breeding style of the individuals in the industry. The end results for each breeder — beautiful plants that are game changers for the industry — serve as an outward expression of these efforts.

As Mr. Jandrew put it, a breeder's competitor in the plant industry could also be their customer, and it is important to work with each of them.

"In the end, breeders are breeders," he said.

However, with respect to staffing their breeding programs, corporate and university environments are very different.

At Ball Horticultural Company, Jason has breeding technicians and staff that have been working with the company for more than 20 years, and they are valued for their consistency and productivity.

"We have amazing people and they have so much knowledge. It is extremely important for us to keep these people around because we know we can count on them," he said.

At UF, most of the work done in the breeding program is done with undergraduate and graduate students, many who come with limited or no practical breeding experience.

"The most important thing we produce is the people product. We have to train students all of the basics, then when we get them trained they go on to graduate school or get a job. We are lucky if we have an undergraduate student working for us for 2 to 3 years, and with graduate students we rarely have them for more than 4 years," said Dr. Clark.

The way each breeder chooses which plant species to breed is another key difference in the way corporate and university breeders function. Dr. Clark said he thinks academic breeders are more limited to specific crops due to the limited availability of funding and genetic resources at universities.

"We just don't have the resources to go on plant expeditions to collect new genetics anymore, and plant collectors have domesticated many of the plants that are suitable for the flower industry. It is also difficult for a breeder of a new crop to get grant funding, and because of long crop cycles it is harder for them to publish enough papers to get tenure.

"The good thing is that university administrators see the value of established breeding programs producing royalties, so now we are seeing good investment in plant breeding for the future and development of young faculty," he said.

At Ball Horticultural Company, Mr. Jandrew said he has the ability to choose plants based on the company's sales and marketing needs. He also said he is able to pitch an idea for a specific plant to be grown and finds inspiration from walking through the plants in his fields.

"I think we have quite a bit of freedom, but we do have to make money for the company," Mr. Jandrew said of the decision-making process at Ball.

He said he thinks (most) corporate breeders do have a bit more freedom than in academia because they have more access to lots of new types of plants, but he said "it takes a lot of discipline to know what will work, and I can't just breed everything I like. I get good input from a lot of smart people, so we have a really good system at Ball for making decisions on what we do."

In terms of funding and intellectual property, there are major differences between the roles breeders play in securing their research programs and the products that come from them.

Mr. Jandrew operates on a yearly budget, and since he is frugal he can maintain his program within those budget lines.

"Adoption of new technologies happens regularly within the company, so I do not have to go outside of the company for technology resources very often, but when we do, we will definitely partner where we can," Mr. Jandrew said.

In the university setting, funding for research comes from different sources including internal and external grants, as well as contract research.

"We are measured to an extent by how much support we can get for our research programs. If we don't get grant funding, the only way we can have a breeding program is to inherit it, which is a rare thing. If we are fortunate to become successful, many academic plant breeders can do well on royalties if their university re-invests the funds back into the program. UF has the most generous program for re-investment in breeding programs in the country, and it is paying off well," said. Dr. Clark.

On the corporate front, breeders do not have as much of a hand in submitting the actual paperwork. Instead, they can hand in a research paper to some of the staff, and the rest of the patent-writing process is taken care of by another staff member.

Academic breeders have a much more hands-on experience with their patents and are responsible for submitting the paperwork on their own, without as much help from other staff.

The bottom line, however, is the bottom line for both: all breeders have to be involved in the process because they are the inventors and creators of new technology, and they know it like no one else.

Though all of these differences exist among corporate and academic breeders, both sides have the same or similar goals at the end of the day — to share their work and their love of plants with the rest of the world.

All of these plant breeders agreed that they have the best job in the world. They love working with plants. They get to travel and see how their plants perform around the world, all the while soaking up culture and forming their visions for their next great plant invention. They get to be creative and work around new technology, and they all love what they do.

Editor's Note: This story was originally published by the American Floral Endowment (AFE). Photo courtesy of AFE.