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BASF Industry Workshop at PAG Conference features Steve Tanksley, NSIP's Chief Technology Officer

By Elaine Ahmed, Research and Innovation Communications Manager, BASF ; Derek Drost, Scouting & External Collaborations Manager, BASF


Representatives from BASF’s Seeds & Traits R&D (Field Crop Seeds and Vegetable Seeds) and Bioscience Research areas recently hosted an industry workshop featuring world-renowned career plant biologist and geneticist Steven Tanksley at the International Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, California, from January 12-16, 2019.

This year’s conference was attended by more than 3,000 industry, government, and academic researchers and leaders in plant and animal biology, genetics, and genomics.

BASF’s workshop showcased examples of innovation and collaboration in the BASF agricultural solutions space, promoting BASF’s numerous collaborative projects with academic and industry partners. In addition to Tanksley, speakers from BASF included Derek Drost, Scouting & External Collaborations Manager; Jonny Jacobs, Program Leader, Crop Efficiency Wheat; Megan Sweeney, Native Trait Breeder, Cotton; Jonathan Vogel, Senior Team Leader, Trait Knowledge; Jeffrey Skinner, Principal Scientist, Vegetable Genomics; and Yoram Barak, Innovation Manager.

During his featured speech, “Designing & Executing Optimized Breeding Programs,” Steven Tanksley, Chief Science Officer at Nature Source Improved Plants (NSIP), discussed the impact that operations research principles could have on plant breeding programs, as well as his company’s efforts to use mathematical models to optimize breeding results. He explained that plant breeding is exceptionally complex with millions of potential variables, so it is highly amenable to the concepts of operations research. NSIP has developed algorithms to optimize the breeding process through these concepts, increasing speed and accuracy, and is currently partnering with BASF Seeds & Traits businesses to apply their algorithms and methods in pepper, tomato, cotton, and soybean breeding programs. Tanksley highlighted the initial results of these ongoing partnerships with BASF and his positive experience collaborating with BASF R&D.

Jonny Jacobs' presentation, “Delivering Traits in Hybrid Wheat," focused on his team’s efforts to develop a hybrid-based breeding program in wheat, which is a traditionally inbred crop with a relatively narrow commercial seed market. The hybrid system is based on a cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) system. The CMS breeding platform has achieved technical proof of concept and is presently in the evaluation stages for commercial proof of concept. In addition, the team is actively continuing to evaluate new phenotyping methods, the wheat genome, and genome editing platforms to continue to accelerate the pace of learning and delivery of new innovations for continued yield improvements.

Megan Sweeney spoke about “Cotton Breeding for a Changing World,” outlining work to continue to innovate in cotton breeding, meeting the changing needs of both growers and fiber processors. To respond to grower needs, the breeding programs in BASF are focused on developing and delivering new disease-resistance solutions, as diseases such as Blue Disease and Target Spot become endemic in broader growing regions globally.  Additionally, certain boll characteristics in the field are important for maximizing grower lint yields and subsequent profits and these remain a key focus of breeding. Gathering ever larger amounts of data on plants and the environments they grow in, in order to help meet these changing demands, is making the breeding programs in BASF more data-driven and necessitating new skills and methods in data management and processing for everyone working in and supporting the breeding program.

During his speech, “Pepper Tilling Population Resources for Collaborative Gene Discovery & Trait Improvement,” Jeff Skinner described BASF’s efforts to develop two large pepper populations that were traditionally mutagenized with an EMS mutagen for the purposes of forward genetic analysis and gene discovery. These populations have the potential to deliver new variants not found in traditional breeding populations, which may be commercially relevant, as well as to validate interesting traits discovered in normal breeding populations. So far, two large, mutation-rich populations have been developed.  The vegetable team collaborated with researchers at UC Davis to rapidly characterize these populations for the sequences of the mutations and the mutation density using new high-throughput genome sequencing methods. Now, these populations are ready to be characterized phenotypically, and one of the goals of this presentation was to broadcast that we welcome internal/external collaborative research efforts to characterize specific genes or traits of interest to academic researchers.

Jonathan Vogel's presentation, "From Traits to Targets: Building Tools to Identify Gene Editing Candidates in Crops,” focused on work to develop and utilize high-quality, high-resolution traditional genetic populations in maize for gene discovery purposes. This effort was successful, and Vogel gave one example of a biparental population that segregated for a large number of traits expected to represent important yield components. Because of the focus on creating a very high-quality population with good genetic resolution, the average resolution of the internal BASF proprietary populations has been shown to be better than the highest standard populations available in the public sector.

Finally, in his presentation on “Postdoctoral Centers at BASF,” Yoram Barak described how BASF’s global postdoc centers, the California Research Alliance (CARA), the North American Center for Research on Advanced Materials (NORA), the Joint Research Network on Advanced Materials and Systems (JONAS), and the Network for Asian Open Research (NAO), underpin the success of the company’s global university network and Know-How Verbund. In particular, he explained NORA and CARA in greater detail, noting that all of the postdoc centers support all aspects of the BASF businesses and deliver important innovations that translate into new product value continuously for BASF.

The BASF teams also hosted an exhibit booth at the conference, where they showcased BASF’s historical and newly acquired agricultural solutions businesses and presented the organization as a new, well-rounded player in the agricultural solutions space. The booth also provided an opportunity for recruitment and talent acquisition with the hundreds of Ph.D. students and post-docs attending the conference.

“The exhibit booth led to great partnership opportunities,” said Derek Drost. “We identified a number of potential interesting leads for future collaborations and new technology that can be applied across the BASF pipeline in biosciences, seeds & traits, and beyond.”

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