Glyphosate-resistant grass seed created using traditional breeding techniques
By MITCH LIES
When it comes to bringing herbicide-tolerant grasses to the market, the slow-but-steady traditional approach to breeding is bearing fruit faster than genetic engineering.
Roundup Ready bentgrass -- once the focus of the industry's herbicide resistant grasses -- remains tied up in a lengthy federal deregulation process. But The Scotts Co. in recent seasons has begun releasing herbicide-tolerant seed developed using traditional breeding methods.
The seed is being developed by Pure-Seed Testing President Crystal Fricker.
Scotts owns first rights to Fricker's seed under terms of Scotts Miracle-Gro's 2006 purchase of Pure-Seed's one-time parent company, Turf-Seed Inc.
Fricker in recent years has seen several of her glyphosate-tolerant fine fescues enter the professional turf grass market. She also is working on glyphosate-tolerant perennial ryegrasses, bluegrasses and tall fescues.
Once she advances the glyphosate tolerance in other grass species, the trait could be sold in blends.
The glyphosate-tolerant seed to date is available solely to professional turf grass managers, in part because of fears homeowners might improperly manage the trait by over-applying glyphosate.
Unlike the Roundup Ready bentgrass, the traditionally bred glyphosate-tolerant grasses are susceptible to high rates of glyphosate.
While genetically engineered resistance involves a single dominant gene, traditionally bred tolerance involves multiple genes. The multiple-gene structure minimizes the chance the trait could spread through pollination to other plants.
It takes considerably longer to breed in herbicide tolerance under traditional techniques than through genetic manipulation: Fricker spends an average of 10 years on each of her glyphosate-tolerant varieties.
And it involves a lot more in-field work. Only about 2 percent of Fricker starts show the kind of tolerance that triggers additional testing.
Plants that show tolerance are moved into what Fricker calls an isolated crossing block. From there the plants will be brought to harvest, and seed from the plants will be replanted.
Fricker puts out 200,000 to 300,000 plants each fall.
Another advantage for traditionally bred plants is they face far less regulatory scrutiny than plants genetically engineered for herbicide resistance.
The Scotts Co.'s Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass has been tied up in the federal deregulation process since 2003 when Scotts and Monsanto first petitioned the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to deregulate the crop.
Seven years later, the process continues to inch forward, but federal officials still have no timeline for when the seed could be deregulated.
According to USDA public affairs specialist Mike Pina, APHIS only recently started on a draft environmental impact statement for the creeping bentgrass.
A biological opinion assessing the grass's impacts to threatened and endangered species was released Feb. 19 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Once the draft EIS is complete, APHIS will publish a notice in the Federal Register and seek public comments, Pina said.
Pina could not give a date when that might occur.