Updated March 29 at 4:45 p.m. EDT.
In 2009, Monsanto, the biggest agricultural company in the world, did something that had been unthinkable just five years before.
It made a major investment in wheat.
This wasn't the company's first foray into developing more advanced wheat cultivars. In the 1990s, it had begun research in developing Roundup Ready wheat to add to its suite to herbicide-resistant crops. But economics reared its ugly head. Acreage in spring wheat had declined dramatically, and Monsanto ended the research in 2004.
Just five years later, wheat markets were on the upswing. Growers began pushing heavily for private investment in research. Monsanto bought WestBred, a small grain biotechnology research firm out of Bozeman, Mont., in 2009 for $45 million. With the merger, Monsanto acquired WestBred's "germ plasm" -- a kind of toolbox of genetic resources that might improve wheat.
Monsanto gave itself five to seven years to develop genes that promoted drought tolerance and high yield. The company is now developing high-yielding, locally applicable varieties, and the next step will be to apply biotechnology know-how acquired in corn research to begin playing with wheat genetics, said Claire CaJacob, wheat technology lead for the company.
"The biggest focus is on drought and intrinsic yield," said CaJacob. Disease and pest control -- a factor also linked to climate change -- "is also pretty important."
In the short term, Monsanto will continue to develop its germ plasm through advanced breeding techniques, using molecular markers -- pieces of DNA that 'mark' a certain trait on a plant's genetic blueprint -- to formulate climate-hardy seeds.
Eventually, the company hopes to develop its germ plasm to a point where genes from corn and soy to improve yield, drought tolerance and nitrogen-use efficiency can be implanted into the wheat genome.
Looming challenge to seed developers
Monsanto could start field testing genetically modified wheat by 2012 and deliver the variety to the market in the next decade, said a spokesperson for the company.
With not a single genetically engineered wheat variety on the market, and a pressing need to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050, seed developers are beginning to grasp the challenge looming just ahead.
While traditional wheat breeding has been accelerated by modern science, it is still no match for the potential of genetic engineering. Isolating a drought-tolerant or nitrogen-efficient gene through crossbreeding different species -- even with today's molecular marker technology -- can take up to 20 years.
In theory, genetic engineering can cut that time in half, even less. But there are other factors that are keeping genetic engineering research stalled.
According to Mark Sorrells, a researcher in plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, the major factor holding back the technology is regulation, which can cost companies millions. More precisely, it costs between $100 million and $150 million to develop genetically engineered crops before they hit the market, according to a spokesperson for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
In addition, unpredictable results might require multiple attempts at placing the transplanted gene into a wheat genome. And although official reports claim that bioengineered crops are no less safe than traditional ones, many people -- especially in Europe -- still refuse to accept them as a food crop.
But despite the costs, scientific uncertainty and public skepticism, even traditional plant breeders agree that genetic manipulation, along with age-old methods, is needed to keep the world fed through the next 40 years. The two approaches are complementary; both have their place.
And whether for transgenic or traditional breeding research, recent private investment in wheat has elicited a sigh of relief for many in the industry.
"There's only so much public investment that will go through research," said Jane DeMarchi, director of government affairs for research and technology at the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG). "If we limit ourselves to just public investment, we might not see the innovation we need for our crop to reach its potential."
Hybrid wheat, approaching the 'holy grail'
Like Monsanto, Syngenta, the third-largest seed company in the world, is looking to corn, wheat's competitor on the global market, for clues on making heartier varieties. The company is developing a hybrid variety of wheat -- a cross between two species of the same genus -- that is impossible to create in nature.
Hybrids are often much more vigorous than their inbred versions. In the case of corn, the hybrid variety far outyields its non-hybrid version, and responds better to fertilizer, as well.
"Hybrid wheat has been holy grail for people in wheat genetics," said John Bloomer, head of cereals for Syngenta. In corn, a crop that has been hybridized since the turn of the 20th century, "it improves yield and creates a more robust plant, particularly in stressed environment," he said.
Hybrids are also a moneymaker for seed companies, which can resell the choice variety every year. Otherwise, farmers could simply save the seeds themselves.
"Because wheat is an inbred crop and farmers can keep seeds, it's been hard to sustain heavy R&D programs," said Bloomer.
Since wheat naturally pollinates itself, cross-pollinating two parents from different varieties to create a hybrid is impossible without some genetic prodding. Expensive biotechnology is needed to correct this has inhibited hybrid research. Syngenta is using its experience from the development of hybrid barley -- a close relative to wheat -- to develop a hybrid variety of wheat.
For fighting climate change, research has centered on strengthening the rooting structure of wheat, enhancing the intake of water, increasing the plant's biomass and facilitating CO2 absorption.
Last year, Syngenta partnered with CIMMYT, a Mexico-based nonprofit corn and wheat research and training center, to do some more advanced wheat research. Using advanced genetic marker technology and traditional seed banks, the partnership seeks to develop both native and genetically modified traits for wheat. The company did not disclose its financial investment in the partnership.
"We're looking at genetics, native traits, GM approaches, seed care products," said Bloomer. "We're looking at all the tools possible to make plants utilize water better."