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Big data tool from local startup could help Monsanto engineer better seeds

Corn stalks sit in a new greenhouse structure, which features 160,000 feet of glass at Monsanto on Oct. 28, 2016.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
File Photo | Corn stalks sit in a new greenhouse structure, which features 160,000 feet of glass at Monsanto in this photo taken on Oct. 28, 2016.

Monsanto has reached a non-exclusive licensing deal with a local company to use a tool that could help engineer new, high-yielding seeds. 

The GenoMAGIC technology was developed by NRGene, an Israeli startup that opened its U.S. headquarters in St. Louis last spring. Scientists use the tool to analyze genes in plants. Monsanto wants to use it to find new combinations of genes that could produce bigger harvests for farmers.

The tool could resolve some concern among the company's scientists that they could run out of genetic combinations for their seed products. Tom Osborn, Monsanto's Molecular Breeding Technology Director, said customers greatly depend on the company's ability to deliver new and better seeds each year. 

"We want to make sure we can continue that trend in delivering higher and higher yielding hybrids that will perform on their farms on their conditions," Osborn said. 

Monsanto reported earlier this month that its seed and genomics business made $1.9 billion in the first quarter of the year. 

Osborn said data science tools like GenoMAGIC will help tackle big picture problems. Human populations are increasing, but suitable land for farming is decreasing. 

"We've got to essentially double food production by 2050," he said. "It's not just us that has this challenge. It's everyone in agriculture. For us, one way we intend to do this is by delivering better seed.

Follow Eli on Twitter @StoriesByEli.

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.