We started off in a visitor center of sorts where we viewed some interactive displays about agriculture. Factoids like only 3% of the Earth's land is amenable to agriculture were interesting to discover. There were also maps of how planting zones have changed; basically crops that were traditionally grown in southern regions are now being grown further north. We then went on a walking tour of the facility, which opened in 1984 and at the time was the only facility doing biotechnology.
The research process beings with gene discovery. Researchers take genes found in nature (no genes are created) and transfer that gene to the plant. That, in turn, tells the plant to produce a protein which may effect a certain characteristic such as drought-tolerance, for example. Plants are grown with the added gene and studied extensively. We viewed several growth chambers and green houses. Research is conducted on several generations of the plants. From gene discovery and insertion, to observation and researching the plant, to government approval, the entire process ending in commercialization of a new biotech crop takes anywhere from 8-12 years.
The tour moved pretty quickly, and we had just a couple of hours between the research facility and the breeding and agronomics tour at the headquarters. I would have liked to take more notes to share with you, but what I got down was pretty limited.
We did see this machine in action:
This chipper actually takes a 3-D photo of each corn seed, tells the machine how to rotate it so a 5mm slice can be taken out of the seed without damaging the embryo. The chips are then analyzed and select seeds are sent back to breeders.
We talked a bit about GMO food safety, the history of biotech, and the future of some of the research they're doing. It really was an interesting tour!