As the creation and seed production of a new variety of sugar beet by SESVanderHave may take up to twelve years before it reaches the market, the permanent and complex process of improving the performance of sugar beet to field and agronomical conditions by breeding delivers products to farmers and the industry at an ever increasing rate.
This rapid genetic evolution is a combination of the technical advances seen in plant biology and the company’s focus and passion for delivering new technologies, new germplasm, new traits and new seed treatments into varieties dedicated to the customer’s needs.
Dedicated team of experts
With more than 18% of turn-over reinvested in Research and Development, SESVanderHave demonstrates a true commitment to developing agriculture. SESVanderHave’s seeds are widely recognised for their quality and reliability thanks to modern methods and tools developed and used by the dedicated team of experts at SESVanderHave.
Germplasm, crosses, trials and field observations remain the basic components for breeding improved seed. However, biotechnology has become a major complement to the traditional activities of breeding. In parallel with this, substantial advances are being made thanks to automation - computers as well as high-tech growth-rooms - and greenhouse facilities. The major progress is the result of the application of DNA technologies, enabling the analysis, sequencing, use and manipulation of DNA with the aim of improving the genetic makeup of the varieties produced.
DNA is the constituent of genes, containing the genetic information, understanding its organisation to better combine genes in new, higher performing varieties and is at the heart of our breeding and biotechnology today.
SESVanderHave is making best use of the advances in plant biology: acting indirectly or directly on the DNA is a major goal of the biotechnologies in sugar beet breeding, a collection of tools enabling us to (i) analyse and screen DNA information for the traits expressed in the sugar beet, (ii) manage and select genetic combinations and recombinations based on actual genetic information in individual plants or in populations crossed by the breeder (iii) to modify the genetic information (and thus the trait encoded by the genes) by adding novel pieces of genetic information, or by using random or targeted mutagenesis to change the genetic information resident in the genome to alter a trait.
Another component of what is traditionally called biotechnology refers to the application of cell biology, including the well established methods of plant micro-propagation. These, at SESVanderHave, include proprietary methods of cell culture to regenerate a whole functional plant from individual cells, the DNA of which can be manipulated using DNA modification or mutagenesis techniques. This adds considerable opportunities for novel raits to the crossing techniques that breeders at SESVanderHave continue to improve.
Pioneer in the use of DNA markers
Of course, the breeders and specialists have a large collection of other technologies to help and support the processes of measuring the phenotype, characterizing traits, collecting data and deciphering complex pathways that are the keys to the desired trait for which we are breeding. Many innovative tools have been developed to allow precise and fast measure of trait expression, field performance, seed treatments or processes in the seed or the plants.
SESVanderHave has been pioneering the use of DNA markers since the inception of the technology, back to the time of RFLP’s, when differences in the length of DNA fragments at particular locations on the chromosome (‘polymorphism’ of restriction fragments) were correlated to the phenotype for certain traits.
SESVanderHave was one of the first companies to develop a genetic map for sugar beet, anchoring known DNA fragments relative to each other according to the segregation data from crosses between parents bearing known fragments. With this, SESVanderHave started to have a view on the organisation of the chromosomes and started screening the genome with selected probes from DNA spread along the beet chromosomes.
SESVanderHave discovered some that these could be used as markers for traits of vital commercial importance like the resistance to the virus causing rhizomania. With the rapid evolution of these technologies, including the ability to directly amplify the DNA fragments of interest instead of detecting it on a gel by hybridisation techniques, our ability to test more markers in more regions of the genome has accelerate and allow to tag other interesting areas of the genome linked to a variety of traits, including a number of resistances to fungal diseases which have been used in products.
SNP’s as foundation of the new marker platform
Progress will now rely on Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNP’s), a marker system that can differentiate individual plants based on variations detected at the level of a single nucleotide base, the ultimate constituent units of the DNA in the genomic sequence. Such variations are present in large abundance in the genomes of higher organisms including plants. This Single Nucleotide Polymorphism is the foundation of the new marker platform that is developed at SESVanderHave. More markers are being discovered as a denser map is developed, allowing the scientists to reveal differences between individual plants. For any region of the genome it will now be possible to define multiple markers showing polymorphism in any set of germplasm.
Because these differences are based on single base changes, the sophisticated assay and detection method to spot differences at given points between individual plants will translate in a simple analysis of a fluorescent signal ‘on the screen’. SESVanderHave has invested substantially to set up a fully robotised high throughput platform to apply its proprietary SNP’s; this platform has a capacity of many millions of points of data per year – cheaper and faster than current technology. This allows testing genetic information on tens of thousands of plants to select for given traits at all stages of the breeding process.
A major project was launched last year to increase the number of proprietary SNP’s using the resources of proprietary and public sugar beet sequences. Sophisticated DNA sequencing tools provided by service companies will produce sequence data from many breeding lines to discover SNP’s in hundreds of new markers. Complex traits (QTL’s) involving several regions of the genome will be more suited to precision mapping and identifying markers for yield, quality related traits, abiotic stress and agronomic related traits by association mapping.
It is a commitment from SESVanderHave to start its own sugar beet whole genome sequencing project aimed at determining the order of the nucleotide bases in large portions of the genome and to discover the organisation of these fragments relative to each other using sophisticated bioinformatics to line up sequences of millions of fragments from an elite genotype.
This will lead to a true physical map where large stretches of sequences of genetic information will be deciphered and, to some extent, genes will begin to be identified by mining all available genomic data banks using a variety of automated annotation tools. Research centres of excellence will be collaborating with SESVanderHave to consolidate progress and results in a dedicated genomic network.
From the so-called QTL fine-mapping programmes, SESVanderHave will be able to target specific regions of the genome for annotation to find potential candidate genes. It will also allow us to identify regulatory sequences and genes until this time undescribed in sugar beet.
These will also be valuable for transgenic programmes and will provide opportunities to discover new traits that can be developed in sugar beet, possibly enhanced by classical mutation technologies.
For important pathways, this can rapidly lead to identification and isolation of actual candidate genes that would be studied by over-expression or knock-out approaches using transgenics.
Alternatively, targeted mutation strategies will be applied to specific key genes encoding essential functions in order to enhance the expression or modify the regulation pattern with the support of expert academic groups and biotech companies. An example would be the carbohydrate pathway related genes, which could be altered to allow a dramatic increase in sucrose accumulation in the top root tissues.
While molecular breeding using markers will remain central to genetic progress of a field crop like sugar beet, the direct transformation of certain genes into the beet will be essential to maintain its competitiveness relative to sugarcane, and to match the economic, environmental and industrial objectives for the crop. SESVanderHave is also working with industrial partners at alternative uses of the productive potential of beet for other purposes than sucrose production.
Single cell based regeneration system
One particular technology developed by SESVanderHave is the single cell based regeneration system exploiting the totipotency of stomatal guard cells, a feature quite specific to the Beta species.
With this system, numerous genetically modified plantlets can be produced rapidly (10 months) in a predictable fashion allowing SESVanderHave to screen rapidly for novel traits or to study particular genes, their mode of action and their function as part of academic collaboration to better understand the functioning of the whole plant and the biological processes leading to enhanced performance.
Novel traits such as viral resistances, low fertilizer requirement, improved water usage, enhanced sugar accumulation, control of flowering are being studied and evaluated for their application in new, higher performing products. Herbicide resistance is already on the market and opens avenues to more novel traits in many markets in the next decade.
SESVanderHave also has isolated its own regulatory sequences, such as tissue-specific promoters which can drive a high expression of genes in given regions of the beet. This will allow SESVanderHave to focus expression where and when needed in the plant and the seed.
Beside the vast amount of breeding tasks now combined with a number of innovative biotechnologies, SESVanderHave spends considerable resources and effort on improving its understanding of the germination process, the factors that produce good vigour and allow a good storability of the seed for a given period of time. With the help of accurate measurement methods or DNA technologies, work is ongoing to identify genes and processes. These traits are regulating and so allowing optimising seed quality. This can lead to new markers that ultimately allow SESVanderHave to guarantee even better quality seed to our customers.
The SESVanderHave seed technology experts continue to propose new improvements and developments to the evolving pelleting and coating technologies used by the company. Successful application of the seed priming technology by the seed factory teams to large amounts of commercial seed from SESVanderHave has again demonstrated how quickly and professionally the company can bring to the market novel innovative seed products. These SESVanderHave seeds deliver more homogenous sugar beet crops with higher yield potential, ultimately ensuring the progress towards a more efficient, competitive and productive sugar beet processing industry.