When Monsanto Co. developed its newest strain of engineered soybeans, the company didn't use gene splicing. It used math.
Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, has touted the Vistive soybean as a scientific breakthrough because it is ready-made for processing into healthier food oils that are low in trans fats.
But the secret recipe behind Vistive doesn't include genetic material from bacteria or other organisms that Monsanto often uses to develop seeds of what become pest-resistant plants.
Instead, there is an enormous numbers game, a complex system of data analysis, gene screening and a transcontinental network of greenhouses churning out seeds every day of the year in search of those with the desired traits.
Although Monsanto is known around the world for making genetically engineered plants — derided as "Frankenfood" by critics — it is increasingly focused on breeding as a way to develop new crops.
"I think the thing that's emerging in our business, particularly in the last year and I think in the next few years, is the importance of breeding," Monsanto Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant told stock analysts earlier this month.
The move could help Monsanto overcome hurdles in the international market, where consumers are wary of genetically engineered crops, said Bill Selesky, an analyst with Argus Research in New York.
"I think that if (genetic engineering) was something that you could either begin removing, or make less intensive, I think the possibility of getting more in sales from an overseas customer might be greater," Selesky said.
By many measures, the Vistive bean was developed through traditional breeding — mating one plant with another, again and again, until the offspring contain desired traits. But Monsanto applied a new twist to the age-old process, drawing on techniques the company developed over a decade of splicing genes.
The techniques — like using "gene markers" to spot promising seeds and crunching the data in supercomputers — shaved at least three years off the process of moving Vistive from the drawing board to the marketplace, said Monsanto Vice President David Stark.
The Vistive bean traces its roots to 2002.
"I was out talking to the food industry about biotechnology, trying to determine what they want from a company like Monsanto," Stark said. "One of the things that was recurring was that, well, it looks like trans fats could be really important."
Concern was mounting about trans fats contributing to unhealthy cholesterol levels. It's made when oils are partially hydrogenated, a process that stops oils from naturally degenerating. That results in a longer shelf life.
Stark thought there was a solution — breed a soybean with oils that are already stable enough to have a long shelf life. Cutting out hydrogenation would mean cutting out trans fats.
Figuring out how to do that fell to the likes of Monsanto scientist Pradip Das, who runs the company's crop analytics laboratory that tests everything from the starch content of a corn kernel to the genetic map of a cotton plant.
Das said scientists knew that a key reason soybean oil degenerates is the presence of linolenic acid. Breeding beans low in the acid could reduce the need for hydrogenation.
Genetic splicing wasn't necessary to derive such a bean. Researchers at Iowa State University developed a "low-lin" soybean years ago, according to the American Soybean Association. Such beans contain about 1 percent linolenic acid in their oil as opposed to 8 percent in standard beans.
But just because there was already a strain of low-lin beans didn't mean Monsanto could simply sell it. Commercial soybean and corn plants are like thoroughbred racehorses, with a long genetic history that emphasizes high yields over all. This is crucial for big commodity farmers, who typically operate with razor-thin profit margins and large debt payments.
Melding the low-lin strain of soybean into Monsanto's line of commercial crops could have taken many years, said Joe Byrum, Monsanto's trait integration team leader.
Mixing a low-lin bean with a premium soybean produces offspring that still have a lot of genetic "junk," as Byrum puts it. While the low-lin trait might be there, the "junk" could yield a spindly plant with skimpy bean production. The goal is to find that one-in-a-million seed with the low-lin trait and nothing else but the premium genes.
"It's a needle in a haystack," Byrum said. "So if I have a tool that can go in and pick out the needle every time, that's very efficient."
The tool Byrum uses to pick out the needle is called a genetic marker. Byrum can take a leaf sample from a soybean sprout and instantly tell if the seed contains the low-lin trait.
But breeding is a game of big numbers, Byrum said. It's a matter of finding the right trait hundreds of thousands of times until the offspring is narrowed down to the right cross — the soybean plant with the low-lin trait and thoroughbred yield performance.
Monsanto has sped up this numbers game at its laboratory in Ankeny, Iowa. The lab is a hub for the company's global chain of greenhouses. Seeds are sprouted there daily, eliminating winter downtime, letting Monsanto breed about three soybean generations annually, Byrum said.
Genetic samples are taken the moment a seed spouts — whether in the Midwest, Puerto Rico or Hawaii — and then sent back to Ankeny. Byrum's team analyzes them using genetic markers, then quickly crunching the results on computers to determine which seeds are winners.
Byrum said his lab receives hundreds of thousands of seed samples at a time, and must analyze them in about two weeks.
The right strain was found, and Vistive has been planted on about 500,000 acres in the United States this year, according to Monsanto. After harvesting, the beans are kept separate from the general supply and sent to food processing companies like Cargill Inc., which sells the soybean oil as a premium product for a variety of foods — from cookies to spicy mustard.
Grant told stock analysts the process that made Vistive could be used to integrate any number of traits into Monsanto's line of crops.
"We're looking at accessing genetic diversity globally and using those crosses to produce seeds that run faster, that perform better," he said.