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New biotech alfalfas aim to improve feeding efficiency

There were plenty of alfalfa varieties for seed breeders to evaluate at FBI
<p> There were plenty of alfalfa varieties for seed breeders to evaluate at FBI.</p>
Roundup Ready alfalfa was mired in a six-year legal morass by radical environmental groups. It is now widely planted with as much as 90 percent of alfalfa seed sales in the transgenic legume.

The petition to deregulate the second biotech alfalfa drew sparse public comment. Not unexpectedly, it drew far more anti-biotech responses than endorsements. One hundred of the 120 comments submitted opposed the deregulation of reduced lignin alfalfa. However, only two of the oppositions’ comments even mentioned the word alfalfa.

Most simply stated they “hate Monsanto,” according to Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics, the company that developed Roundup Ready alfalfas using Monsanto biotechology.

His comment drew chuckles from seed dealers and others who were visiting Forage Genetics’ new research facility near Davis, Calif., as part of a field day sponsored by W-L Alfalfas.

The guffaws were for the ludicrousness of the non-scientific objections from environmental radicals. The anti-biotech movement has morphed into an anti-Monsanto tirade.

The attack on biotech alfalfa is no laughing matter, however. Roundup Ready alfalfa was mired in a six-year legal morass by radical environmental groups who challenged USDA’s decision to deregulate the herbicide resistant forage crop with a variety of lawsuits. Eventually, Monsanto and Forage Genetics prevailed, and RR alfalfa has been on the market for more than a year. It is now widely planted with as much as 90 percent of alfalfa seed sales in the transgenic legume.

Alfalfa acreage has steadily declined over the past few decades; therefore, the industry has far fewer resources to develop expensive biotech crops than other major crops. However, alfalfa remains a very significant forage crop for livestock feed, especially in dairies.

Had the radicals been successful in killing Roundup Ready alfalfa, it could have halted biotech development in alfalfa because of the limited resources and acreage.

The research and development dollars for alfalfa have declined by 60 percent to 70 percent over the past few years because the number of alfalfa seed companied has plummeted from 10 to 15 to just three.

It costs $100 million and takes at least eight years to develop a GE trait alfalfa, McCaslin told the group. That is more than the remaining alfalfa seed companies can afford individually.

Thus, the Consortium for Alfalfa (CAI) was created to fund continued improvement in alfalfa for dairy cattle.

CAI is comprised of four entities, Forage Genetics, Pioneer, the Noble Foundation and U.S Dairy Forage Research Center and its USDA-ARS alfalfa research unit.

Researchers in this group are working to develop forages using biotechology that can be utilized more efficiently by cows. Up to a third of alfalfa protein is excreted by cows, and farmers often have to replace alfalfa with row-crop-derived protein sources or feed protein supplements at extra costs.


One CAI research initiative is focusing on cell wall digestibility through lignin reduction, and another is improving efficiency of protein utilization using genetic engineering to develop “tannin alfalfa.”

USDFRC estimates that a 10 percent increase in fiber digestibility could result in $200 million in annual increase in milk and beef production in the U.S., and a 200 million ton annual decrease in production of manure solids.

Lignin is indigestible.Genetic engineering has been used to “knock-out” genes coding for one or more of the several enzymes the plants use to make lignin and thus make the alfalfa more digestible. This would not only improve alfalfa digestibility, but would give growers more harvest flexibility. As alfalfa matures, the crop's lignin levels also rise. Low lignin alfalfa would allow a later harvest and higher tonnage.

Brown midrib corn is an example of a natural mutation that caused a “knock-out” of one of the lignin biosynthetic enzymes.

The alfalfa with reduced lignin is going through the USDA approval process, and McCaslin expects it to be deregulated next year when breeder seed will be released.

McCaslin said this technology has provided a 24 percent increase in digestibility of alfalfa. This is compared to just a 2 percent improvement in digestibility after 30 years of traditional breeding, he explained.

The second genetic improvement involves increased protein efficiency.

Although alfalfa has a high protein content, protein is rapidly degraded in the rumen, and inefficiently utilized by dairy cows. As a result even high alfalfa diets often require protein supplements when fed to high producing dairy cows.

Inefficient utilization of alfalfa protein also results in increased losses of nitrogen to the environment, potentially affecting water quality. In making alfalfa haylage there is also an extended period of time for post-harvest protein breakdown, often resulting in high nonprotein nitrogen (NPN) content of typical alfalfa haylage. This significantly further decreases efficiency of protein utilization, compared to alfalfa hay.

The USDFRC has identified a gene in red clover (PPO) that is responsible for a compound that significantly reduces post-harvest protein degradation. This gene has now been expressed in transgenic “PPO alfalfa.”

Tannins are found in many plants. They generally bind with proteins, decreasing rate and extent of protein degradation.

Genetic engineering

Forage legumes that produce tannins in leaves or stems have increased stability of protein in the rumen, resulting in more intact protein by-passing the rumen and going directly to the cow’s stomach.

Genetic engineering offers tools that can be used to modify alfalfa to produce more tannin in leaves and stems. The Noble Foundation and other FGI collaborators have identified several candidate genes that may be useful in producing transgenic “tannin alfalfa”.

Researchers have found that tannin alfalfa would decrease protein supplementation by 60 percent, decrease on-farm nitrogen losses by 25 percent, and increase farm income by 12 percent. Tannin alfalfas would increase the value of hay by $23 per ton.

Field trials are underway with tannin alfalfas. McCaslin gave no date for possible release.

Alfalfa breeders are also using a technique called “Tilling” to search for improved DNA. Tilling is an acronym for Targeting Induced Local Lesions IN Genomes.

It is a relatively new breeding technique that was created as a result of DNA sequencing.

DNA sequencing came out of the biotechnology evolution. It allows breeders to quickly identify the desirable traits of extracted plant DNA. It is often called molecular marker technology, and it is widely used in so-called conventional breeding of individual species.

McCaslin said this molecular marker technology allows him to evaluate thousands of extracted DNA samples in a matter of weeks, where before it would take two years to do the same thing using older technology.

Tilling is a reverse genetic technique used to screen plant mutations. It is used in breeding rice, wheat and tomatoes,  as well as alfalfa.

McCaslin said Tilling is not regulated like biotechnology and therefore, less expensive to develop new cultivars using it rather than genetic engineering. It costs about $200,000 and takes two years to develop new varieties using Tilling, he says.

Forage Genetics has not abandoned traditional breeding methods. McCaslin said FGI continues to seek out new varieties that withstand environmental stresses like cold, heat, high salts and high PH soils.

FGI is field testing experimental varieties that can better tolerate these stresses, McCaslin said.

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