Battle of the Bents

A new era will be ushered in when genetically modified turfgrasses hit the shelves. That day is soon to come. Scotts and Monsanto have joined forces to develop the first transgenic turfgrass — Roundup Ready (glyphosate-resistant) bentgrass. Among other things, Roundup resistance was selected as the first trait to appear in transgenic turfgrass because it is well defined and understood and is easy to select for. Other turfgrass species and transgenic traits will undoubtedly follow suit.

The collaboration Tee-2-Green, Turf Seed and HybriGene is also working on transgenic turfgrasses. Their twist is to develop a male-sterile transgenic bentgrass that addresses concerns of potential escape through cross-pollination with other varieties.

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Both forces are leading the way in the development of new turfgrasses that will revolutionize the way we manage turf. We asked each force to tell us about their genetic engineering efforts. Read on and compare their views.

Turf benefits of biotechnology on the horizon

By Bob Harriman, The Scotts Co.; and Don Suttner, Monsanto

Biotechnology, which has brought economic advantages and lowered pesticide usage in agriculture, may soon have a positive environmental and economic impact on the turf and ornamental industry as well, assuming successful completion of the regulatory process.

At the Millennium Turfgrass Conference held in Melbourne, Australia, in June 2000, Craig Edminister of Cebeco International Seeds identified herbicide resistance, insect resistance, salt tolerance and disease resistance as important traits that would be extremely difficult — if not impossible — to deliver using traditional breeding methods. However, through biotechnology, those highly desirable traits are possible and, in fact, likely.

ROUNDUP READY CREEPING BENTGRASS

The first turf product from this biotechnology is likely to be creeping bentgrass made tolerant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup PRO herbicide. The Scotts Co. and Monsanto have completed three years of intensive research on this front, and have submitted findings to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for regulatory review. If the process stays on track, Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass could be available to golf course superintendents within the next two years.

The quest to develop glyphosate-resistant bentgrass began in 1990, when the United States Golf Association (USGA) provided a grant to Rutgers University to study whether the glyphosate-resistance gene being developed in crops also could be inserted into turfgrass.

Mike Kenna, research director for USGA, selected creeping bentgrass for the trial because he felt weed control improvements in that species would provide the most immediate pesticide reduction benefits. If it were possible to control Poa annua infestations in creeping bentgrass, he reasoned, golf course superintendents could reduce their herbicide usage as well as their use of insecticides and fungicides. With no existing product that offers effective control of Poa annua in creeping bentgrass, golf course superintendents are forced to cultivate the Poa as a turfgrass. This, in turn, forces them to use two pesticide regimens: one for the Poa annua and one for creeping bentgrass.

Furthermore, Kenna reasoned, if weed control issues could be solved in creeping bentgrass, that species might supplant other species used on northern golf courses, such as perennial rye and Kentucky bluegrass, which have their own set of pest challenges. The result could be improved playability and simpler turf management for a wide range of golf course superintendents in regions where creeping bentgrass can thrive.

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

While the USGA supported the initial research, Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass did not go onto a development track until 1998, when Scotts entered into a development agreement with Monsanto.

Since then, there has been intensive study in cooperation with more than a dozen major universities and consultations with leading golf course superintendents, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) and USGA. The combined efforts have resulted in the establishment of nursery settings at more than 30 golf courses where superintendents are evaluating the Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass genotype under their course-management practices and against today's best creeping bentgrass varieties.

Over the past three years, scientists at Scotts and Monsanto have worked with leading academic researchers to develop the database required by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the branch of USDA responsible for evaluating plant biotechnology. APHIS is responsible for reviewing products to evaluate their plant-pest potential.

Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass is the first perennial biotech grass plant to be reviewed by APHIS. In fact, Scotts and Monsanto voluntarily withdrew their petition in order to develop an additional year of data to provide a more thorough review of a perennial plant. They have since resubmitted the petition and the project is on essentially the same timeline as earlier anticipated.

Thorough research will determine if the biotech plant differs from its conventional counterpart in any way other than the inserted gene.

UNDER STUDY

Here are the results from just some of the recently completed evaluative studies:

  • Seed germination studies

    These studies show that seeds are unlikely to develop if dropped on bare soil unless well watered, and very unlikely to grow if dropped on soils where grasses are growing — the same as with conventional bentgrass seeds.

  • Competition studies

    These show that Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass is no more fit to compete against other plants than conventional creeping bentgrass, already a poor competitor in the wild.

  • Flowering and pollen studies

    These show that the biotech bentgrass flowers and produces pollen at the same time and in the same quantity as conventional bentgrass.

  • Seed onset and yield studies

    These comparisons show the Roundup Ready product is essentially identical to conventional creeping bentgrass.

  • Morphological studies

    These studies, which compare characteristics such as leaf length, anther and stolon size and root mass, show that Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass and other creeping bentgrasses have essentially the same physical characteristics.

  • Nutrient studies

    These studies compare the nutritional content of the biotech grass with its conventional counterpart and show that there are no changes that could affect wildlife or livestock, if fed bentgrass.

These studies, which are similar to those required for biotech food crops, demonstrate that Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass is substantially equivalent to conventional bentgrass.

These data show that Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass is highly unlikely to establish or spread in the environment. Research has demonstrated that creeping bentgrass does not cross with other unrelated grass species such as rye or fescue. If the Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass should cross with another bentgrass species, research shows that bentgrass hybrids do not compete well against other plants. Furthermore, any plants that might survive would be substantially equivalent to other bentgrass plants and could be controlled by mechanical removal or with a herbicide other than glyphosate. A number of herbicides provide effective control of Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass, including glufosinate and the ACCase inhibiting herbicides fluazifop, clethodim and sethoxydim.

STEWARDSHIP

Scotts and Monsanto also have developed an extensive stewardship program for individual golf courses that will plant Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass. Central to this stewardship is a commitment that golf courses using Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass will keep the grass mowed, not allowing the creeping bentgrass to reach a height where it could produce seed.

This unique stewardship program is in effect for our seed production facilities in Oregon. Jefferson County grass seed producers asked the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to establish a control area that separates creeping bentgrass seed developed through biotechnology from conventional creeping bentgrass. The ODA established an 11,000-acre control area in Jefferson County, approximately 100 miles to the east and on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, a formidable barrier to any seed dispersal to the conventional seed production area. Any seed that might escape from these irrigated farms would not survive in the arid region of eastern Oregon.

BENEFITS OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

More than a decade ago, the USGA recognized the potential benefits of glyphosate-tolerant creeping bentgrass. Research has confirmed this. The ability to control Poa annua with glyphosate could eliminate nearly 500,000 pounds of pesticides including fumigants, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides per year, according to estimates based on current use patterns. Research also shows that watering needs are lessened when Poa annua is removed from the turf. A number of studies are being conducted with several universities to learn more about how watering needs are lessened when the percentage of Poa annua is changed.

At Scotts and Monsanto, it is our hope that the combination of sound science and good stewardship will help solve some of the most perplexing challenges of turf management. Weed control certainly is high on the list of challenges, but so are diseases, drought and insects. We are proud to be the ones who will potentially open the door to economically and environmentally sound solutions to these problems through biotechnology.

  • Roundup Ready and Roundup are registered trademarks of Monsanto Technology LLC.

  • Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass has not yet completed the regulatory process in the U.S. and Roundup PRO is not registered for use over the top of turf. It is a violation of federal law to promote an unregistered pesticide use.

Bob Harriman is vice president of biotechnology at The Scotts Co. (Marysville, Ohio) and Don Suttner is regional technical development manager at Monsanto (St. Louis, Mo.).

Transgenics: The Bright Future of Turfgrass

By Jeff Litrenta, EPIC of Wisconsin, Inc., on behalf of Tee-2-Green

Transgenics. Even the word sounds futuristic, like something from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie; but genetic research and engineering is an area of brilliant discovery that holds the promise of exciting rewards for people worldwide. Yet with all of its potential, transgenics is still a science in its infancy, and like so many other new things, misunderstanding and even misuse sometimes threaten its possibilities.

But in a fully functional plant transgenics and molecular biology facility in West Kingston, R.I., scientists are using genetic technology to create the future world, working to improve many of the agricultural products we use including turfgrass.

Proving the benefits of this new world of science is HybriGene, Inc., an affiliate organization that provides agricultural biotechnology research to Oregon-based seed providers, Turf-Seed, Inc. and Tee-2-Green, Corp. HybriGene was co-founded by Bill Rose, president of Turf-Seed and Tee-2-Green, and by Tom Hodges, Ph.D., and his wife. “The inspiration came because we had developed these patents from research that we did in university laboratories,” says Hodges. “I thought there was a great opportunity to develop these patents and use them for the production of genetically engineered crops.”

Since its founding, the company has been working to develop new and improved turfgrass varieties for the marketplace through genetic engineering. “HybriGene's goal is to create new cultivars that will compete in the marketplace and actually replace existing cultivars,” says Albert Kausch, Ph.D., who is the research director at HybriGene.

ON THE RIGHT PATH

The potential good that can come from this science is seemingly endless: the ability to place certain desirable traits from outside the gene pool of conventional breeding practices into turfgrass. That means landscapers, sports field managers and golf course superintendents can have grasses that are herbicide-resistant, tolerant of drought, stress, salt and insects, grasses that have better growth habits and color. These genetically engineered grasses will give homeowners and sports turf managers benefits including lawns and playing fields that stay green with less water and fewer chemicals — a plus for the environment. Golf course superintendents can maintain putting greens that play better and are totally free of unwanted weedy grasses like Poa annua. The possibilities truly are endless.

With licensed rights to a number of patents in various stages of issuance, HybriGene has already positioned itself as a leader in the plant biotechnology industry. “We are not just a start-up company looking for a way to produce and market these products,” says Kausch. “You can think of many bio-pharmaceutical companies that are good at the science but have no way to get out into the marketplace. In our case, the entire product pathway is established through the Rose companies.”

That pathway begins with Pure Seed Testing, a Turf-Seed affiliate research company that develops new cultivars through traditional methods of breeding. Pure Seed gathers quality germ plasm from around the world and selects those with the most desirable traits for breeding. The new cultivars that show the most promise are analyzed and developed, to insure they display the traits and reproduction characteristics needed to be successful in the marketplace. Once those plants are identified and found to be successful, the process moves to Roselawn Seed, an affiliate company that takes the seed to the next step by growing more plants and increasing the amount of desirable seed available, so it eventually can be marketed to customers by Turf-Seed. Rose sees the work at HybriGene as a natural extension of this process. “Our biotechnology work at HybriGene mixes well with our natural breeding functions at Pure Seed Testing, which develops cultivars that then flow to Roselawn Seed, and then to the world through Turf-Seed,” says Rose.

In the future, HybriGene will send its genetically modified grasses to Pure Seed Testing where they will be developed into market varieties through natural breeding. “It really is a misconception when we talk about biotech that most of the work is done in the lab,” says Crystal Rose-Fricker, who heads up Pure Seed Testing. “Once the gene is placed into the plant, we're working with traditional methods. We still go back and select the plants that have the gene, make crosses, evaluate them and screen them under the conditions that the variety will be used.”

STARTING WITH THE BEST

Their affiliation with Pure Seed gives HybriGene another advantage. “The breeding program that has been in place since the 1970s at Pure Seed has generated many different varieties of turfgrass that thrive in different situations,” says Kausch. “We are starting with the world's best germ plasm, which is already suited to the needs of the market, and we are improving it further.” HybriGene can short circuit and quicken the process to market of exceptional grasses, by modifying them genetically, taking that good germ plasm and adding desirable traits, possibly from other plant species such as rice. The rice genome is fully mapped, so some of its genes could be used in the production of grasses.

Much of the initial work at HybriGene has been focused on the golf course industry. Tee-2-Green, the marketing arm of the Penncross Bentgrass Growers Association, has sole permission to grow and sell the Penn bentgrasses developed by Joe Duich, Ph.D., of Penn State University. This affiliation gives HybriGene the ability to work with the varieties developed for greens, fairways and tees that are already performing well in the marketplace, including the new Penn A and G bentgrasses.

“With the Penn bents, we're working with germ plasm that has already been screened thoroughly at Penn State by Dr. Duich,” says Crystal Rose-Fricker. “We're able to put in a gene for herbicide resistance, drought tolerance, or some other trait we're looking for and we have a head start.”

“As far as I know, we are only one of two companies currently involved in turfgrass biotechnology,” says Hodges. “Scotts is working in collaboration with Monsanto, but we have the unique intellectual property to control male sterility, whereas they do not.”

OPEN-POLLENATION OF GENETICALLY ALTERED BENT GRASSES: A THREAT TO PROGRESS?

HybriGene has developed its turfgrasses using safe practices and environmental control. To prevent transgene escape, they have genetically engineered their products to be male sterile. This will prevent movement of the genes to other varieties of bentgrasses. “Based on our environmental risk assessment study at Pure Seed Testing, we do know that pollen can travel quite far and carry transgenic genes,” says Rose-Fricker. “So we are only working with male sterile plants, and we are in the process of proving that we have transgenic creeping bentgrass plants that are male sterile, which means they do not produce viable pollen so the genes can be contained in the plants and the seed.”

“We feel male sterility is important to prevent these genes from moving into wild relatives or into our competitor's germ plasms,” says Kausch. According to a paper co-authored by Jay Wipff, Ph.D., and Rose-Fricker published in the International Turfgrass Society Research Journal, Vol. IX, 2001, this problem is not just theoretical. The article states, “Within highly domesticated crops, crop-weed hybridizations have occurred, leading to the evolution of aggressive weeds (Barrett, 1983) and demonstrating that the hazards created by these hybridizations occur in nature and are not unique to genetic engineering. The weeds are difficult to control because they share so many traits with the crop.”

According to that same paper, creeping bentgrass has the potential to be the first perennial, (stoloniferous) wind pollinated, outcrossing transgenic crop to be grown adjacent to naturalized and native populations of cross-compatible and native species. These are traits, which can increase the risk of outcrossing, persistence and introgression of alien genes into an adjacent population. Most of the risk assessment done on transgenic plants has been conducted on annual or self-pollinating crops, so the potential risks from the commercialization and large-scale seed production of perennial transgenic crops like creeping bentgrass is unknown. Because Oregon produces nearly all of the bentgrass seed grown in the United States, predominately in the Willamette Valley, the risk to other bentgrass varieties is great, and HybriGene feels that more research is needed before genetically altered, open-pollenating plants are allowed to propagate.

In fact, according to Rose, as this article is being written billions of Roundup genes from 400 acres of open-pollenating, transgenic creeping bentgrass have been let loose in Jefferson County, Ore. “There are many resident plants in this area that will now be tested for the presence of this gene,” says Rose, “and the resulting seed, when planted, will also be tested.” Rose adds, “There's an extremely high probability that when those plants mature they'll produce seedling plants that Roundup won't kill. This is a serious problem for farmers who use Roundup to clean their crops; and homeowners, turf managers and golf course superintendents will quickly learn of this problem when Roundup no longer eliminates weedy grasses.”

The debate over genetically enhanced turf grasses and other plants is ongoing; in the meantime, HybriGene will continue its pioneering research, with an eye on safety, producing new varieties with traits that can help the environment, save money and provide a better quality of life for people everywhere. “I see the future of HybriGene as very bright,” says Hodges. “We'll be producing several genetically engineered turfgrasses, herbicide-resistant grasses; we're going to introduce drought-tolerant genes, disease-resistant genes, but the thing that makes us unique is that we are going to be doing this in an environmentally safe manner with genetically engineered, male sterile plants.”

  • Genetic engineering (also called biotechnology) refers to manipulating the DNA or genes of an organism.

  • Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are organisms that have been genetically engineered.

  • Plant transformation (also called plant transgenics) is the process of introducing a gene from some other organism into a plant species.

Jeff Litrenta is a writer, producer and project manager for EPIC of Wisconsin, Inc., an advertising agency and production company located in West Bend, Wis. You may contact him at jlitrenta@epicwi.com.

THE BOTTOM LINE

By Mark Welterlen, Ph.D.

The center of the debate on biotechnology in the case of turfgrass breeding has moved from the morality of human manipulation of genetic material to a new focus: responsible implementation. Whether we like it or not, genetic engineering is here to stay. With all the dollars that have been devoted to research and development on genetically modified crops, and the promises that they offer, I don't think there is any chance that the tide of biotechnology will be stopped. Implementation has been slowed with efforts to stand in the way of progress (and rightly so with such new and far-reaching technology). However, we all know that this is only the beginning of more to come.

Genetically engineered crops have taken over the corn, soybean and cotton markets. Genetically engineered glyphosate- (Roundup) and glufosinate-ammonium- (Finale) resistant crops have been commercially introduced over the last several years. In fact, 75 percent of the soybean crop planted last year in the United States was so-called Roundup Ready (genetically modified for glyphosate resistance), as was 65 percent of the cotton crop and 10 percent of the corn crop.

The development of Roundup Ready bentgrass is a done deal. Scotts and Monsanto have partnered in its development and are chomping at the bit to release this GMO. The only thing holding up release is approval by the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is currently reviewing the petition submitted by Scotts and Monsanto.

Bill Rose and his folks at Tee-2-Green, Turf Seed, Pure-Seed Testing and HybriGene are concerned that transgenic turfgrass pollen will cross with other varieties of bentgrass causing escape of the gene to the wild. By developing a transgenic variety that is male-sterile, they hope to prevent escape from occurring. They are on the biotechnology bandwagon and are holding on just as tightly as Scotts and Monsanto, but Scotts and Monsanto got on first. Bill Rose's advantage lies in the depth of well-established bentgrass varieties (Penncross and Penn A and G bents) that Tee-2-Green has marketed. Time will soon tell who introduces the first transgenic turfgrass, but it appears that Scotts has the lead.

Where will biotechnology lead us from here? Other turfgrass species will undoubtedly become transgenic crops as well. Roundup resistance is only the first step in turf, but Finale (glufosinate-ammonium) resistance is sure to follow. With biotechnology the world of plant breeding has changed forever. We will undoubtedly reap the benefits.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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