What’s Next in Ag Technology: Interview with Monsanto’s Fraley
As executive vice president and chief technology officer for Monsanto, Robb Fraley understands the importance of melding the advances of technology to create more effective tools to help growers protect their crops from a wide range of pests.
The two most important scientific advances in our lifetimes, Fraley says, have been the advances in biology and those in data science and precision agriculture tools.
Monsanto’s ability to join the collective innovations have not only helped the company develop many new products but also led to its own evolution as an enterprise.
When Fraley joined Monsanto in the 1980s to start the biotech program, it was an industrial company. There the company developed the first GMO products. That turned Monsanto from an industrial chemical company into a biotech one. The continuing advances could have Monsanto transforming once again. “We could easily transform into a data science company in the future,” Fraley says.
Whatever the future for Monsanto might look like, the current iteration is busy creating new tools for growers looking to protect their crops and improve their yields.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time in terms of all the elements in our pipeline,” he says.
“We’re gearing up for what will probably be our largest biotech trait launch ever with Roundup Ready Xtend soybeans,” Fraley says. “That’s going to give farmers the benefits of both Roundup Ready and dicamba in that same seed. That’ll be available in both soybean and cotton starting next year.”
RNAi technology has been the next big thing for several years,now. The wait, Fraley says, is almost over.
“We’ll be launching a brand new insect control trait for corn rootworm,” Fraley says. The product called SmartStax Pro will be part of the SmartStax package. The technology will be the first new bug control trait based on RNAi technology.
“It’s completely different mechanism than the Bt traits,” Fraley says. “That will add yet a new mode of action and will further improve the important rootworm control that farmers need in their corn production.”
As beneficial as this RNAi technology will be, there is another application of the technology that could have an even greater impact, Fraley says.
“A few years ago, our scientists discovered that we could manufacture these double stranded RNA (dsRNA) molecules, and by using appropriate delivery systems, we could deliver the dsRNA and initiate the process of RNAi such that it could be used to topically control insects, or we’ve also done demonstrations where we’ve been able to get it inside a weed or a plant and elicit a gene-specific response.”
That technology is still several years away, but when it does arrive, it will provide growers with a new tool to fight pests.
“In many ways it’s built on the knowledge we have of genomics and biotechnology,” Fraley says. “It takes us in a different direction. It’s not a GMO. It’s a topical application. It would be very similar to any other topical biological treatment, whether it would be spraying a plant with a Bt protein or some other biological source.
“The cool thing about dsRNA molecules is they’re in all of us. It’s a natural way all living organisms regulate their genes. That includes people, plants, and pests. It’s nice to have a very new mode of action for that.”
Once that technology is ready it could provide some very practical applications for existing issues.
“We’re studying how we can use the process of RNAi to overcome the challenge that beekeepers have with Colony Collapse Disorder,” Fraley says. “People have blamed and accused various agricultural products or practices. Most scientists would tell you the culprit behind CCD is the Varroa mite. That mite not only latches on to the bee and drains it of its hemolymph, but it also infects the bee with viruses that finish the bee off.
“What we’ve been able to show is we can design dsRNA molecules that interfere with the genes in the Varroa mite and in the virus, have no effect on the bee, so we can feed the colony a nutrient diet that has the dsRNA in it and help protect the health of the colony.”
Nematodes are a near-ubiquitous problem for growers around the world. Monsanto has developed a compound – currently labeled MON 102100 – that will be developed into a seed treatment nematicide, Fraley says.
“It is a great example of using biology and genomics to discover a new chemical,” he says. The product was the result of Monsanto’s acquisition of a small company called Divergence, which was an offshoot of Washington University in St. Louis. The scientists at that company were the first to sequence the nematode genome and then develop and test inhibitors that could be used to treat these pests.
“In two or three years, we hope to get final approval and have a seed treatment nematicide,” Fraley says.
It’s just one example of how bringing together two technologies can lead to improved solutions. While Monsanto is no longer actively pursuing Syngenta, that move is an example of how Monsanto is looking to exploit potential synergies, according to Fraley.
That was a main driver behind the company’s pursuit of Syngenta, Fraley says. Access to new molecules will help Monsanto’s scientists create new innovations at the genetic level.
In 2014, Monsanto launched the BioAg Alliance, a collaboration with Novozymes to leverage the expertise of both companies to find breakthrough innovations in microbial solutions for agriculture. The effort continues to grow.
“We are just in the process of field testing nearly 2,000 microbial strains in the field and testing in replicated trials for corn and soybean,” says Fraley. “There’s a lot of excitement about the microbial space and how microbes interplay with soil health.”
That excitement, Fraley says, comes from learning how a seed coated with the right microbe strain helps the plant grow and can help protect plants against pests, disease and lead to improved yield.
“New DNA sequencing tools let us characterize the microbes in the soil even more accurately and more precisely,” he says. “Our field-testing capabilities, very similar to the way we would test new breeding lines, are letting us get real-time information on yield gains in the field.
“This is potentially really interesting because it enables us to use a lot of those basic biological tools that we’ve applied to plant breeding and now use those tools to identify and select microbes that can enhance yield as a seed treatment.”