OTHELLO -- The kernels created at Monsanto's new corn breeding facility four miles east of Othello could affect corn grown across North America.
The corn facility, which opened last month, is the beginning of the breeding process for seeds that farmers could be using within five years.
The Othello plant is the first of its kind for Monsanto in the United States because of its use of the double haploid breeding technique for corn seeds, said Brett Sowers, the global corn double haploid production lead for the global provider of technology-based solutions and agricultural products.
The 15,000-square-foot lab at 1485 W. Cunningham in Othello will provide a service for the company's other research programs across the country, he said.
The double haploid breeding technique makes an inbred line of corn faster than would happen in nature, Sowers said. The technique uses a plant with only one copy of a chromosome in its cells instead of the normal two, a trait that occurs occasionally in nature, he said.
Employees in the lab will hand-select kernels to work with, Sowers said. Those kernels will be subjected to a chemical process that affects how chromosomes divide, causing the cells to double their chromosomes and create a double haploid plant.
The seedlings are then moved to the 10,000-square-foot greenhouse to recover, he said. They are later planted in an adjacent 48-acre field to grow, pollinate and produce seeds.
The created seeds will be the parents, the male and female plants, which still will need to be crossed into a combination that farmers use, he said.
They are still several years of further selection and testing away from a commercial product, Sowers said.
Corn is already planted in the field this year, Sowers said. The plants seem to be doing well so far, despite the earlier cool weather.
The process gets to pure genetics quicker, Sowers said. What would normally take up to nine years of self-pollinating will take up to five years, which gets the new seed to farmers faster so the benefits are seen sooner.
In the seed industry, Sowers said, they are always working to create a higher yield and resistance to disease and insects. And nature is always working to overcome the resistance plants have.
That means creating a novel combination of genetics, he said.
"You are constantly looking for new or better combinations," Sowers said.
A new seed may be used for about a decade before it is replaced with another seed, Sowers said.
Monsanto has invested about $4 million in the Othello plant since 2006, and anticipates additional improvements in the future, said Kathleen Manning, Monsanto media relations specialist.
The facility was built with room to expand by adding more office and lab space if needed, Sowers said.
Othello was chosen because of the availability of irrigation, good soil, the high yield potential and the arid environment, which means fewer insects and disease, Sowers said.
And the existing seed production facility, opened in 2003, was available to help with initial work, he said.
That facility, at 776 S. Booker Road in Othello, is where Monsanto produces and packages corn seeds for farmers to use on their fields, Manning said.
Monsanto set up a pilot for the breeding program in Othello in 2006 and a temporary facility in 2007 to work with the breeding materials.
The program was moved from Hawaii, where Monsanto was able to plant and test year-round until the company was confident it could develop the process to use on a commercial scale, he said. The breeding process already is used on wheat, canola, squash and cucumber.
With the permanent plant, Sowers said Monsanto added a fifth full-time employee. The number of seasonal employees has grown to 100 to 110 at the peak. During the winter months, the full-time employees will complete prep work for the next year and support work for other Monsanto plants, he said.
Othello City Administrator Ehman Sheldon said Othello should see some economic benefits from the new Monsanto plant with increased sales tax revenue and within the housing market.
Sheldon, who toured the facility several weeks ago, said it was fantastic.
"It's a very promising effort by Monsanto," he said.