The Van Trump Report

USDA Approves “Intelligent” Corn Plants That Can Change Color

In any given growing season, the list of potential yield-damaging threats to a corn crop is a long one. It can also sometimes be difficult and expensive to diagnose what’s ailing a crop and many a grower that’s likely wished their plants could just tell them what was wrong. That is exactly the idea behind Insignum AgTech’s new corn variety that uses naturally occurring pigment to change color when specific plant stresses begin.

Insignum AgTech CEO Kyle Mohler said its corn plants turn purple to indicate that a fungal infection has started but is not yet apparent. The USDA recently determined that the “12 plants modified using genetic engineering…were unlikely to pose an increased plant pest risk compared to other cultivated plants.” Meaning the edited plants can be grown and tested in the US without restrictions or permits.

“It strengthens our ability to help farmers treat specific problems affecting their crops exactly when, precisely where, and only if needed to sustainably increase crop production,” Mohler said. The company is also working to develop additional plant traits that utilize other natural pigments, like red or blue, to give an early indication of yield-limiting factors such as insect pests or fertility loss.

Mohler, who earned his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Purdue University’s College of Agriculture, founded Insignum AgTech in 2019. Mohler also grew up on a farm in Indiana where theyraised corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa. “I’ve probably spent as much time in my life with my hand on the wheel of the tractor as I have on the science bench,” he told AgFunder earlier this year.

Mohler says the idea for Insignum AgTech was sparked by his father and brother. Apparently, they had started using fungicides, something they’d never done before. Mohler said he wasn’t sure what prompted it, “but the strategy was that they’d buy fungicides in the middle of winter and just spray every acre of both corn and soybeans every year.”

To Mohler, the strategy sounded crazy. He didn’t understand buying something “to solve a problem you don’t even have? Your seeds aren’t even in the ground.” Then he learned it was preventative. “If a plant gets stressed, whether it’s by diseases or insects or low fertility, it’s already too late. You’ve already lost productivity. So farmers have to be preventative in order to be effective at controlling these things.”

It’s more common in food crops than most row crops “because they’re really high value and there’s a lot of money on the table.” Mohler says food crop farmers also overspend a lot on fungicides and insecticides. “For example, it’s not uncommon for our apples to be sprayed 20 times a year with pesticides.” Mohler notes that the fundamental problem is the same across crops.

Mohler’s solution is crops that “flare” to signal specific problems. According to Insignum AgTech’s website, the clear pigment change can be seen with the naked eye and cameras driving through the field or flying overhead.

Insignum conducted its fourth year of field trials in 2023. The company this year also partnered with Beck’s to test Insignum’s corn traits in Beck’s elite varieties. The companies plan to continue that partnership in 2024. According to Insignum, during field trials, purple appears at the site of infection before symptoms can be seen. Every fungal disease that infected the plants triggered a response but no other stress did. Insignum says that with that kind of specificity, no manual diagnosis is required. An automated sense and precision treat system can even take care of the problem.

In January 2022, Insignum AgTech received a $100,000 investment from the Purdue Ag-Celerator, an agriculture innovation fund operated by the Purdue Foundry, with assistance from the Purdue College of Agriculture, the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization and the agricultural industry. Foundry and OTC are now part of the Purdue Innovates network. Learn more at Insignum AgTech’s website HERE.  (Sources: Purdue Newsroom, Feedstuffs, AgFunder)

Insignum AgTech develops plant genetic traits that give farmers an early indication of yield-limiting factors like disease, insect pests or fertility loss. Insignum AgTech and Beck’s Hybrids have signed an agreement to test Insignum’s innovative corn traits in Beck’s elite varieties. (Insignum AgTech photo)

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