Monsanto, BASF announce first drought-tolerant biotech crop

gm-fruitMonsanto and Germany-based BASF have discovered a naturally-occurring gene that can help corn plants combat drought and confer yield stability during periods of inadequate water supplies. The scientists of both companies announced the discovery in Germany on Tuesday.

The companies stated they would use the gene in their first-generation, drought-tolerant, corn product. This is designed to provide yield stability to their farmer customers. The product will be the first biotechnology-derived, drought-tolerant crop in the world.

The announcement comes at a time when recent studies, including one by the US National Academy of Sciences, are warning of declining crop yields and global food shortages as a result of climate change. According to a United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report prepared for ministers of the G-8, the number and duration of dry spells, especially in already drought-prone areas, is expected to increase.

The product is targeted for as early as 2012, pending appropriate regulatory approvals. Both companies also recently announced that they have completed regulatory submissions for cultivation in the US and Canada, and for import by Mexico, the European Union and Colombia. Submissions in other import markets will follow in the months to come.

In any given year, 10-13 million acres of farmland planted to corn in the US may be affected by at least moderate drought. In field trials conducted last year in the Western Great Plains, drought-tolerant corn met or exceeded the 6-10 per cent target yield enhancement – about 7 to 10 bushels per acre in some of the key drought-prone areas in the US, where average yields range from 70 to 130 bushels an acre.

The companies said the drought-tolerant corn contains the cspB gene, from Bacillus subtilis. CspB codes for an RNA chaperone, which are commonly occurring protein molecules that bind to RNAs and facilitate their function. The gene was first identified in bacteria subjected to cold stress conditions and further research has shown that cspB helps plants cope with drought stress. Monsanto scientists have published those findings in a peer-reviewed paper in the journal, Plant Physiology.

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