Revolutionary technology for tasty food, every day

Published: 03-02-2014

The importance and advantages of automated phenotyping
In the plant breeding industry phenotyping is one of the most crucial aspects of variety development. Phenotyping is laborious and requires the significant experience of a professional breeder. Also, the high complexity of agronomically important traits makes it difficult to perform phenotyping with high throughput.

In 2007, the breeding research company KeyGene decided to invest in a new digital phenotyping technology called KeyTrack™, for high-throughput screening of phenotypic variation. Through digital phenotyping it is possible to link complex traits to the available data of the DNA of varieties. This results in finding the gene of interest and the location of such a gene. Harold Verstegen, Vice President Bioinformatics of KeyGene, says: “By combining KeyGene’s existing DNA technology with automated phenotyping, we found a color gene in pepper within four months. Breeders will benefit from these capabilities by finding genes linked to certain traits, resulting in better breeding material and in consumers enjoying fresher and tastier products.”

The KeyTrack platform is a robust phenotyping platform in a greenhouse setup. The phenotyping is based on imaging technology and uses the potential of a fully automated track that moves all plants through the greenhouse compartment and scanning areas. The plants grow in individual containers and are photographed at preset points in time and from various angles. The images are stored in a large database, ready for further detailed trait analysis. Says Verstegen, “We look at typically dissected traits such as shape, color, architecture structure, leaf area and water content. With these data we can carry out projects like biomass development, yield stability, root development, shoot development, drought experiments and resistance screening.”

Joint forces to add capabilities for breeders
LemnaTec, a German technology company, and KeyGene are collaborating in plant “phenomics.” Harold Verstegen continues: “By combining the strength of LemnaTec’s imaging platform and KeyGene’s analysis platform we can now offer new high-throughput capabilities for robust and objective screening of plant populations. KeyGene and LemnaTec will be the first in Europe to deliver this technology as a service for customers all over the world.”

KeyGene is a molecular genetics R&D company with a primary focus on 6F crop improvement (Food, Feed, Fiber, Fuel, Flowers and Fun crops). KeyGene delivers sustainable molecular genetic responses to the world’s need for stability in the yield, quality and health of crops. KeyGene assists breeding companies by providing cutting-edge breeding technology and trait improvement platforms for their own crop development.

KeyGene is headquartered in Wageningen, the Netherlands, with a subsidiary in Rockville, Maryland, USA, and a Joint Lab at the Shanghai Institute of Biological Sciences in Shanghai, China. With more than 130 employees, KeyGene performs strategic and applied research in a dynamic work environment with state-of-the-art facilities and equipment. KeyGene also has strategic partnerships with companies that have breeding activities in the 6F crops.

Capturing digital root characteristics using KeyTrack:

  • A. Plants grown in transparent pots on KeyTrack;
  • B. Plant after being imaged, weighed and watered automatically;
  • C. Algorithm for detecting shoots and roots from the images captured on KeyTrack;
  • D. Image processing steps to identify object of interest from the raw image;
  • E. Digital detection of the roots.

The long-term relationships that KeyGene seeks with its partners are based on its founding in 1989, when five Dutch seed companies established KeyGene. Their goal was and is to create synergy and higher efficiency in their molecular genetic research programs, thus improving their breeding efforts. At this moment, KeyGene has four strategic partners in vegetables—Enza Zaden, Rijk Zwaan, Vilmorin & Cie, and Takii & Co., Ltd.—and several partnerships in field crops and flowers.

KeyGene: technology platforms
KeyGene uses three powerful, proprietary technology platforms: Lead Discovery & Validation, Molecular Mutagenesis, and Accelerated Molecular breeding. KeyGene uses these platforms to develop improved crop traits in its trait programs, which are focused on crop resistance to sucking insects and fungi, the efficient use of water, herbicide tolerance, and reproduction traits. Collaborating with global industry leaders, KeyGene develops novel traits in the 6F crops through contract research, partnerships and codevelopment programs. For details on the revolutionary patented technologies, technology platforms and collaboration opportunities, please contact KeyGene.

KeyGene partners with Indian firm to address food shortages
KeyGene’s accelerated molecular breeding platform could hold the key to addressing India’s anticipated food production crisis. Through a research partnership with Bioseed Research India, KeyGene is developing disease- and insect-resistant hybrids in rice, cotton and okra that will significantly increase crop yields. As opposed to breeding based on genetic modified (GM) crops, KeyGene’s patented methods use vital genes from the crop itself.

To date, only 3 percent of the total rice producing areas in India are using hybrid rice seeds.  Due, in part, to the lack of available quality seeds and poor extension services, that figure has not increased in the last several years.  But now, the Indian government has targeted the eastern region provinces for extensive use of hybrid rice – similar to what China has been doing since 1976.

According to government officials, hybrid rice technology has the potential to increase productivity by almost one ton per hectare.  At present, India produces 99 million tons of rice from 43 million hectares – but the demand is projected to grow dramatically over the next decade.


KeyGene: the “Green Gene” revolution comes to America
In 2007, KeyGene decided  to establish a subsidiary in the USA: Keygene, Inc. Headquartered in Rockville, Maryland, Keygene, Inc., was set up to expand on the company’s excellent crop breeding research. According to An Michiels, CEO of Keygene Inc.: “We saw the opportunities in Applied Systems Biology and Plant Breeding that are present in the U.S. and wanted to extend our collaboration with American research institutes, universities and companies. Maryland is a hub of molecular biology and biotechnology research. KeyGene not only benefits from this, but also contributes to the excellent research in this region as well.” The start of the U.S. subsidiary has already resulted in a number of fruitful relationships. For example,  a long-term collaborative program with the Beltsville Agricultural Research Service unit of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA-ARS) on bell pepper cultivars with improved taste characteristics, has been established. In 2010, KeyGene entered into a trait development agreement with AgroSciences LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company, to asses the use of Zinc Fingers to improve the yield of tomatoes.
In the coming years, KeyGene’s portfolio will expand to encompass other field crops such as sunflowers and wheat. Traits like draught resistance, and insect or viral resistance will become increasingly important.  Michiels concludes, “We will further develop our expertise in Applied Systems Biology and data analysis, thus actively contributing to the Green Gene Revolution.”

Contact Details:
Herco van Liere
Agro Business Park 90
6708 PW Wageningen
The Netherlands
Telephone: +31 317 466 866

In the United States:
Mark van Haaren
Rockville Innovation Centre – Suite 405
155 Gibbs Street Rockville,
MD 20850, USA
Telephone: +1 240 205 7083 Website: