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It may sound corny, but …

Photonics Spectra
Nov 2008
Charles T. Troy, Senior Editor, charlie.troy@laurin.com

JOHNSTON, Iowa – Out in Iowa, where the cornfields flow off into the horizon, researchers from Pioneer Hi-Bred, a division of DuPont, are putting lasers to work in an effort to increase crop yields and, they hope, to alleviate world hunger.

According to Jason Cope, manager of enabling technologies and engineered solutions at Pioneer, the work has been driven by a need for greater yield to meet growing demand. “Traditionally,” Cope said, “building better crops has been a labor- and land-intensive practice involving planting acres of test plots, harvesting seeds, planting again and evaluating the results.” In effect, letting Mother Nature run her course in selecting a better seed.

PNcorn_fig1.jpg

A laser scores a small slice from a seed to capture its genetic information while maintaining the seed’s viability for planting. Courtesy of Pioneer Hi-Bred.


The procedure shortcuts Mother Nature by taking a seed from a sample crop, slicing off a bit with a laser to extract genetic material and then sending the material to the lab for analysis. If the seed has the right stuff, it is planted in a test plot for further analysis. The process, Cope asserts, is simple and not constrained by location – an important consideration in a worldwide agricultural environment.

To extract the sample, Pioneer has assembled a system that automates the process. There is no need to manually orient the seeds before they are sliced. Instead, they are hit with metallic paint and secured magnetically to a frame. Next, a CO2 laser – essentially a marking type – slices off a piece of the kernel, drops it into a collection box and saves the remainder for planting. Cope describes the system as modular and, for proprietary reasons, is mum on details about the laser or other specific components.

PNcorn_fig2.jpg

Magnetic paint orients the seed for laser sampling. Courtesy of Pioneer Hi-Bred.


In all, the process not only speeds up development of higher-yielding corn and soybean varieties but, by reducing the number of needed test plots, also frees precious cropland for other research activities. Cope estimates that the laser procedure results in a 10 percent saving in field space.

The grain produced from these corn and soybean varieties ultimately will be used for food, feed or fuel.


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