The New Hoosier Farmer: Makes Corn in a Laboratory
You’re sitting at a table in a generic conference room, just past the employee cafeteria in the Indianapolis headquarters of Dow AgroSciences. A couple of weeks ago, a woman from the company’s communications office agreed, at your request, to set up a meeting with a scientist, preferably one who works with corn. She had the perfect person, she said. A “corn rockstar.” Rock on, you thought.
You didn’t know quite what to expect from a “corn rockstar.” But now that you’re here with Jim Bing, you realize he is precisely what you should have imagined: a middle-aged white guy with glasses, khaki trousers, and a button-down short-sleeved shirt. He summarizes his bio, and you wonder if it’s made-up. He is from Iowa—Iowa, for God’s sake. As a teenager, he spent summers working on an uncle’s corn-and-soybean farm near Waterloo.
This encounter with Bing grew from—ahem—the kernel of an idea: Challenge the traditional definition of “farmer” by highlighting the more contemporary elements in Indiana agriculture. Last year, the value of all crops raised in the state exceeded $8 billion. Dow AgroSciences reported about $6.4 billion in sales—meaning that, in rough terms, a single agricultural biotech firm on the northwest side managed to harvest three-quarters as much cash as all Hoosier farmers combined. Eighty percent of corn grown in the United States contains genetic technology developed by Dow Ag. One might argue that Jim Bing, who helped sow the seeds for much of that technology, is the top corn producer in Indiana.
Bing began his career in the 1980s, conducting research in the area of “host plant resistance entomology.” Corn is under constant attack from other plants, which compete for sunlight, water, and nutrients—and from bugs, which want to eat it. For much of the 20th century, farmers combatted these invaders with chemical herbicides and pesticides and by planting hybrid seeds with inherent pest control. Developing such hybrids was Bing’s bailiwick.
“Think about the corn plant as being in an arms race with the insects,” he says. “The ‘host plant resistance’ component identifies and accumulates naturally occurring resistance genes in elite, high-yielding corn hybrids.” In layman’s terms, Bing’s work involved the kind of plant-crossing you might remember from studying Mendelian tables in high-school biology class.
In the mid-1990s, research in crop gene-tics saw a paradigm shift: transgenics. Through a process known as introgression, scientists were figuring out how to insert genes for desired traits, such as insect resistance, directly into a plant’s genetic blueprint. They made a breakthrough with “Event 176,” the successful insertion of genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a toxin-producing bacterium, into a corn embryo. The new plant variety had resistance to the dreaded European corn borer—a nasty little imported worm that tunnels into stalks and slips under husks and devours the grain. Corn bearing the Event 176 trait became the first transgenic corn seed registered with the EPA. Bing got involved early on, introgressing the Event 176 trait into plant strains, or “germplasm,” owned by Mycogen, the company he worked for at the time (now a subsidiary of Dow Ag).
More milestones followed. From 1996 until 2005, Bing led the team that developed “Herculex,” a line of Bt traits that offered even stronger corn-borer resistance and, later, protection against rootworm (which eats exactly what the name implies). First registered with the EPA in 2001, Herculex is now the world’s most widely used family of insect-resistant corn traits. When Bing entered the field, corn-borer infestations sometimes wiped out as much as 30 percent of a harvest. At the dawn of the new millennium, the losses were almost negligible.
Then things got complicated. The Herculex traits are “single-active,” meaning they cause corn to produce a toxin that kills pests through only one physiological process. But as Darwin might have predicted, insects can develop resistance, too. So Bing and his team worked multiple Bt traits into the genome of a single plant, a process known as “stacking.” Now, they could imbue corn with toxin-producing proteins that killed bugs in several ways at once—“multiple modes of action,” in ag jargon.
“The proteins we put in work on different binding sites in the insect gut,” Bing explains. “There are different proteins for different receptor sites. The insect has to overcome each mode.” So even if an insect evolved to tolerate one toxin, the odds that it would have tolerance to all of them are slim. In 2009, Dow Ag, in partnership with Monsanto, registered “SmartStax,” the first transgenic line to bundle eight traits, including tolerance to common herbicides. Corn plants imbued with SmartStax technology are protected against corn borer and rootworm as well as earworm, fall armyworm, western bean cutworm, and black cutworm (which, judging by these critters’ frightful names, is commendable).
For reasons too complicated to explain here, growers are normally permitted to plant only 80 percent of a given field with Bt corn seed, leaving 20 percent unprotected as “refuge” for bugs; with SmartStax, they can increase that area to 95 percent. That pleases farmers—and Dow Ag management. “The receptivity by growers has been phenomenal,” says Tony Klemm, who heads up the company’s global corn marketing and strategy. “We’re on track to deliver 70 percent of our U.S. seed-corn portfolio in the SmartStax family this year. It’s part of a billion-and-a-half-dollar [new product development] project.”
But the higher-ups at Dow Ag aren’t keen on showing off the advanced labs where such wildly lucrative products take root. So Bing has to explain the science of transgenics here in this conference room. Hearing his measured Midwestern twang, you can almost imagine him talking over a term-life policy in a small-town insurance office.
“Really and truly, transgenes are an extension of something that’s been going on for thousands and thousands of years,” he says. “It’s just the next step in speeding up the evolution of corn to defend itself.”
Bing and his team, he explains, extract a portion of the donor DNA that includes the desired genes and then insert it into the nuclei of corn embryos that have “elite genetics”—corn varieties that have been selectively bred to be hardy and yield a lot of grain. They do this over and over again, into the embryos of multiple corn plants. By growing these new plants in controlled conditions and crossing them with other plants that also contain transgenes, over several generations they can create an organism in which all the transgenes are situated in just the right places in the genome. Eventually, a mature plant will exhibit the desired traits—and no unintended funky ones.
Before you leave, Bing takes you into the basement, gives you a lab coat and safety glasses, and leads you into a brightly lit laboratory. Dow Ag has field operations scattered around the Americas—across the U.S. Corn Belt and in tropical locales like Hawaii, Argentina, and Brazil, where continuous growing conditions allow breeders to raise as many as four generations of corn per year. At the remote sites, researchers punch out a small disc of tissue from the leaf of every new, experimental variety of corn plant and then ship the samples to Indianapolis. Bing holds up a case of 96 tiny vials filled with emerald-green liquid; each contains a solution of corn tissue. The vials will go into a centrifuge, which spins most of the plant debris to the bottom, leaving the DNA floating on top. Finally, in a third machine, precision robots extract pure DNA from each vial, which Bing’s team takes to another lab and analyzes in the never-ending quest to find more stable, more effective, and, where bugs are concerned, more deadly genetics.
Which brings to mind something Bing told you earlier: Even now, as researchers make plants immune to pests and weed-killer, they’ve embarked on a mission to find “agronomic” gene traits that might make corn impervious to drought and nitrogen-poor soil and burst with even more grain. As he elaborated, “All those things probably will be the next wave. And we do work on that stuff, yes.”
In other words, in a secret lab somewhere upstairs, this unassuming scientist might eventually spawn the Incredible Hulk of corn. It might even be in one of these little green vials. And one day, it might take over the world.
This article appeared in the September 2013 issue. Read about more New Hoosier Farmers here.