Monsanto Soybean Breeding Chair: A beneficial partnership

April 16, 2019

In 2013, Monsanto partnered with the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University to create the Monsanto Chair in Soybean Breeding. The position has provided the soybean breeding program with tremendous opportunities and offered substantial results.

Since its inception, the named faculty position has been held by Dr. Asheesh Singh, who earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and animal husbandry from G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in India, a master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics from the University of Saskatchewan and a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics from the University of Guelph.

“I have no hesitation in saying that the Monsanto Chair in Soybean Breeding has been integral to the success of my program at Iowa State,” said Singh. “It made it possible for us to deploy futuristic approaches for breeding applications. The Iowa State soybean breeding program is gaining recognition as a leading breeding and research program because of the generosity of Monsanto.”

“The Monsanto Chair in Soybean Breeding was a successful partnership between ISU and Monsanto-Bayer due to the vision and commitment of Monsanto and ISU leaders, and innovative work by students, post-doctoral fellows, staff and colleagues in agronomy and engineering. Special thanks to Mike Graham, JD Rossouw, Warren Kruger, Emilio Oyarzabal and numerous breeding colleagues at Monsanto-Bayer and Kendall Lamkey at ISU for their leadership in helping us achieve success,” said Singh.

Singh’s team is interested in integrating genomics and phenomics though the utilization of advanced sensors, platforms and data analytics to develop soybean cultivars. The two major goals on his breeding program are:

(1) to use genomics, phenomics, high-throughput precision phenotyping, robotics systems and machine and deep learning methods to increase soybean yield and performance primarily for conventional and food grade markets

(2) to diversify the genetic pool by incorporating previously unused genetic material and identifying and utilizing “good” genetic diversity.

Singh Soybean uses engineering and computer science tools and principles to build germplasm and cultivars that combines favorable genetic factors (genes) for high yield, stress tolerance (a/biotic), and stable production. The team aims to develop and communicate new understanding and insights on the genetic mechanism of important traits; discover new sources and genes useful to protect yield losses from biotic and abiotic factors and their integration in cultivar development; and integrate engineering tools and data analytics to advance phenotyping for breeding and research applications and to advance engineering and ML domains. Integrated technology including sensors, robots, machine learning and unmanned aerial vehicles have allowed the team to shift from conventional to modern thinking and integrate state-of-the-art methods for breeding outcomes.

Five years later, Singh’s team has tested 50 new cultivars in statewide tests. Those results indicate comparable or higher yields than conventional public-sector checks and the highest among food grade cultivars.

The biggest impact of the Monsanto Chair in Soybean Breeding is likely the education and leadership provided to the next generation of soybean breeders by Singh’s expertise.

“Under Dr. Singh’s guidance, we have formed the next generation of plant breeders who have experience and collaborations in diverse disciplines such as pathology, statistics, engineering, data science and many more,” said Kevin Falk, doctoral student in the Monsanto Chair in Soybean Breeding lab. “The exposure to technology and ideas enables Singh lab members to be well-versed in expanding areas of research and development and agile in the changing job market.”

The success of the program is distinctly attributed to the support provided by Monsanto-Bayer, a relationship that will continue to prosper in the future.

"Formerly as Monsanto and now Bayer, we have been pleased to contribute to the development of Dr. Singh's soybean breeding program at ISU over the last 7 years,” said JD Rossouw, Head of Plant Breeding North America for the Crop Science Division of Bayer. “In addition to the scientific disciplines, he has focused on exploring the inclusion of new technologies into plant breeding. Through his work, he has trained new breeders to reimagine what the future of plant breeding could be."

 

Accomplishments by the Singh soybean group research and breeding program (2014 – 2019):

  • developed world recognition as public sector leaders in machine and deep learning approaches for plant breeding applications and solutions
  • established national and international collaborations in the area of breeding, phenomics, genomics, robotics and data analytics
  • poised to release up to 10 cultivars by 2020 for conventional and food grade markets
  • developed next-generation workforce by training 4 PDFs, 7 PhDs and 3 MS students.5 students graduated (3 MS and 2 PhD) and two PhD students are scheduled to graduate in Spring’19. Students have won several prestigious national awards.
  • 32 invited presentations in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, India, USA.
  • 25 peer-reviewed publications
  • awarded 29 research and breeding grants (competitive)
  • hosted tours for Iowa farmers, farm representatives and industry members to showcase their interdisciplinary research and breeding pipeline
  • served on national and international committees and co-organizer of digital agriculture, cyber-agricultural systems, precision agriculture, big data, phenomics sessions