Staying current with market demands, Sacramento, California’s S&W Seed Company, is pairing cutting edge technology with the company’s legacy breeding program to provide top quality alfalfa seed varieties.

Through molecular genetics technology, S&W Seed Company is focusing efforts into three main channels of improvement: legacy traditional breeding; breeding new cultivars using the two commercial transgenic traits; and the discovery of new and useful traits in collaborative effort through the Calyxt company’s Talen® gene editing technology.

The Legacy Breeding Program

A breeding program spanning more than 35 years, S&W’s legacy breeding program encompasses the benefits of agronomic, disease and pest resistant trait selection to defend yield from losses in the field. With a long-standing focus on root-rots and wilt diseases, S&W has also worked to mitigate yield and quality loss by identifying and selecting resistance traits for lodging; leafhoppers and aphids; and nematodes. Achieving these advancements has required a steady and strong focus on the selected traits that has spanned several subsequent years following initial identification. This lengthy selection process requires a large window of time from trait identification and selection to the production of a commercial product.

Innovation in breeding and selection is helping to reduce this time, however, says Robin Newell, who serves as Vice President of North American Sales for S&W.

“Today, we are using marker technologies to enhance our legacy traditional breeding in alfalfa. S&W’s breeding program is primarily focused on increasing yield, but also for improving forage quality,” says Newell. “Through the use of molecular genetic markers, we [S&W] are able to more thoroughly evaluate germplasm and more quickly identify and bring forward those germplasm lines containing the characteristics we want in commercial varieties.”

Transgenic Breeding

Taking note of the genetically engineered varieties dominating corn and soybean acres, S&W continues to breed new alfalfa cultivars using the two commercial transgenic traits highly suited for North American dormant markets and currently deregulated within the United States. Newell shares that while S&W is not basic in creating transgenic molecular events, and is performing all transgenic breeding under license for Pioneer, it is the company’s hope to be licensed to offer these traits under the S&W brand in the future.

Gene Editing Program

In 2015, S&W entered collaborations with Calyxt with the goal of producing and commercializing alfalfa seed products using TALEN gene editing technology. The technology uses nucleases as customized DNA scissors that bind and precisely cleave preselected DNA sequences. The gene-editing technology not only allows for greater selection precision but also decreases the time associated with genotypic and phenotypic expression of the selected traits.

“In October 2017, the first product candidate was designated as non-regulated by the Biotechnology Regulatory Services of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture,” says Newell. “This non-regulated status will allow rapid development of alfalfa varieties and sales of seed to farmers in a relatively quick timeframe.”

Although the incorporation of new technologies, such as Calyxt’s TALEN® gene editing, will continue to be paramount in the development of the species, the robust breeding program and expertise of those professionals behind it, ensure that S&W will remain competitive in the American agricultural landscape.