Dr. Andrea Schieder and Dr. Melanie Molnar of Enza Zaden and Vitalis:

"As a grower, you basically have to know today what's going to happen with crops in the market 15 years from now"

Dr. Andrea Schieder has been a breeder at Enza Zaden for 26 years and, together with Dr. Melanie Molnar, who again is primarily responsible for the organic sector, demonstrated Enza Zaden's breeding process. "At Enza Zaden, breeding is done at 26 different locations, including Germany. Breeding at our company is done through hand crossing as well as seed multiplication, etc. The respective, most important varieties are also bred in the individual countries," says Dr. Schieder.

26 to 30 crops for glasshouse and field cultivation
In Germany, for example, the focus is on breeding radishes, lamb's lettuce, pumpkins and beet, although trial cultivation for colleagues from other countries, such as lettuces for France, is also carried out on the Dannstadt-Schauernheim site. "At Enza Zaden, we handle between 26 and 30 crops, both for glasshouse and open field cultivation. Classical breeding work is realized in the individual branches. All molecular biology work, however, is done at our headquarters in Enkhuizen, where the big laboratories are."

Dr. Schieder explains one of Enza Zaden's breeding processes. "Our breeding processes are still based on the crossing experiments of the 19th century monk Gregor Mendel. This is still our basic craft. In recent years, other processes have been added thanks to the biotech sector."

When Enza Zaden moved to its new site in Dannstadt-Schauernheim in 2004, 14 people were involved in breeding. "Now there are already more than 30 people working in the breeding department. CEO Jaap Mazereeuw was himself a breeder at heart, and you can see that in the way he handles the breeding department. In my opinion, that is what makes Enza Zaden special. Breeding is a lengthy process. Especially with crops like carrots, beetroot and onions, which don't come into flower until the second year, it can take time to gain seed," says Schieder. In hybrids, breeding takes even longer, he adds.

Perennial breeding methods
"For seed-proof varieties and/or varieties bred in a specific breeding line, new varieties can be brought to market within two to three years. Even if you have the technology available, however, it can take up to 15 years to develop a new variety for hybrids. As a breeder, you basically have to know today what's going to happen with crops in the market 15 years from now."

Various questions preoccupy the breeding department in this regard: "Which pathogens play a role? What is the impact of climate change? What is globalization doing to us? Either you are simply lucky in these challenges or you have the right technology. When you develop individual resistance genes using a certain marker technology, you can exclude certain infection tests, which drives the breeding process. In lettuces, you're already well positioned in terms of marker technology."

A grain developed through a breeding process can be worth up to 150 euros because of the labor involved. "After all, the crosses are still done by hand. F1 here refers to the crosses developed after one year." If one concentrates, for example, on the traits "red" and "powdery mildew resistance," breeding can take between eight to ten years. "I may have resistant varieties after five years, but in the process, new breeds are created. The CRISPR/Cas system also gives us new options in this regard."

To develop resistance, he said, the easiest way to collect samples is to prick out a leaf disc from different plants and perform leaf disc tests, spraying them with a spore solution. "This involves spraying Bremia in pure culture onto the leaves. With this method, very many plants can be observed at once. It can be observed here whether a fungal lawn develops or not. Afterwards one can start with different crossings. As a result, certain seedlings will grow Bremia - or not. Even in the further stages, such as with young plants, you can test your way step by step through the entire infection chain."

However, to avoid damaging the entire plant, leaf disc tests are continually performed. "We thus have a large collection of wild plants at our disposal that we can use again and again for the tests. As soon as a colleague finds an infected plant, we can send a sample to our colleagues in the Netherlands, from where the crop is grown in pure form. This way, we always know which form of Bremia is spreading at which location. After all, Bremia is not only found in Germany or Europe, but also in the USA and other countries," says Dr. Molnar.

The organic seed company Vitalis was founded in 1994 by Jan Velema. Since 1998, Vitalis has been an independent sister company of Enza Zaden, Dr. Melanie Molnar explained. "Organic cultivation has just as many problems with Bremia as conventional cultivation. Especially in pumpkin breeding, there are a lot of new varieties coming on the market that are bred for both organic and conventional production."

For more information:

Dr. Andrea Schieder and Dr. Melanie Molnar
Enza Zaden Deutschland GmbH & Co. KG
An der Schifferstadter Straße
67125 Dannstadt-Schauernheim

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