Ceres, Inc. announced that field trials conducted by scientists in China have demonstrated that its portfolio of drought tolerance genes provided significant improvements in yield protection in rice, which the company routinely uses to confirm trait performance.
One of Ceres' genes produced an average of 25 percent more grain than experimental control plants and 20% more grain than rice plants containing a recently deregulated biotech drought trait. Biomass production was improved by 20 percent over the same controls. In addition to greater yield stability under drought conditions, some Ceres genes have also demonstrated yield benefits under normal watering conditions.
Based on these results in rice, the company believes that drought genes already in its pipeline could maintain 100 percent grain and biomass yields under water deficits up to 30 percent, with the opportunity to further enhance tolerance by combining, or stacking, drought genes together. According to published reports, the first commercial biotech drought trait as well as drought traits developed by plant breeding alone have provided only modest (<10%) yield protection.
Ceres will proceed with additional testing and continue to move its traits into its energy crops as well as row crops. About 80 percent of agricultural land in the U.S. experienced drought last season, making the 2012 drought more extensive than any drought since the 1950s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. corn production, for instance, was down four billion bushels to 10.7 billion bushels from early-season projections of 14.8 billion - a loss of $25 billion based on season-average corn prices for the 2011/12 marketing year.
"Water availability is a fundamental limitation on crop yields. Our drought traits could provide greater yield stability, and in many cases, make cropping less intense in areas where water supplies are limited or being depleted," said Richard Hamilton, President and CEO. "In row crops, this means greater food security, and greater resilience to the effects of climate change. For energy crops, this means making greater use of marginal, low-rent land. This work is made all the more important as U.S. growers faced the most severe and extensive drought in at least 25 years."
Roger Pennell, PhD., Vice President of Trait Development, explained that Ceres' drought tolerance genes function differently from one another in the plant. Some of the genes allow plants to utilize water more efficiently, whereas others are able to allow plants to more readily uptake water or reduce water loss. Stacking genes with different modes of actions could therefore add these functions together and make plants even more productive and resistant to stress, he believes.
Pennell credits the company's success in trait development to its early achievements in plant genomics - identifying and evaluating thousands of genes - and its novel two-species evaluation system. By selecting genes that perform similarly across two genetically distant plant types, Ceres has identified superior genes and validated their performance among hundreds of candidate genes. The company is now demonstrating their impact in other plant species.
"Our gene advancement and development system has been proven to be very successful in predicting performance in other grass crops like our sorghum and switchgrass," Pennell said. Based on the company's experience in multiple species, he believes that step increases in performance can be demonstrated in other commercial crops as well. "By combining our drought tolerance genes, I believe we can test the upper limits of drought tolerance achievable in numerous commercial crops."
Ceres results are based on averaged grain and biomass yields across replicated field tests which were repeated in different climates under drought conditions. The company cautioned that results from a research setting are not a guarantee of commercial performance, and further evaluations are required to confirm results.