Picture This, November 2013 — Human nature


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Human nature

Syngenta hopes to sow the seeds of profit with a new lab in the Triangle that is always weather permitting.
 

Mark Twain, academicians insist, is wrongly credited with saying that though everybody talks about the weather nobody does anything about it. Regardless, that isn’t true at Durham-based Syngenta Biotechnology Inc.’s Advanced Crop Lab in Research Triangle Park. “We’ve got 40 different growth chambers,” spokesman Steven Goldsmith says, and workers can adjust the climate in all of them. “If we want to test, say, drought-resistant corn in Texas, Iowa or Canada, we can do it here.” Opened in May as part of Syngenta AG’s $94 million expansion of its 50-acre biotechnology campus, where 400 people work, it’s the Basel, Switzerland-based agribusiness’ most advanced center for genetically engineering crops.

“What we wanted is the ability to study plants and plant physiology in a much more precise fashion than we were able to in our existing facility here or than has been possible at any other facility in the world,” Goldsmith says. “This was built with precision in mind.” Hence the $72 million price. The building has about 130,000 square feet — more than 3 acres — and a third of that is its glasshouse. The rest is labs and offices. Expensive but hardly a ripple in the company’s revenue, which totaled more than $14 billion last year.

Starting at the roof, 25 feet at its peak, the glasshouse is encased in haze glass developed for Syngenta by a Dutch glassmaker. It lets in 92% of the light spectrum but diffuses it to minimize shadows. Mammoth air-conditioning units in the basement control temperature and other factors. Segregated growth chambers have mirrored walls and instruments that measure moisture excretions and other botanic functions. “Within one of the chambers,” Goldsmith says, “plants can be exposed to the same amount of light, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide. But then, for example, every row of plants can be given a different level of moisture and nutrients, so we can test how they grow under the same environmental conditions but with different levels of moisture and fertilization.” A hybrid such as Syngenta’s Agrisure Artesian corn — developed at RTP to cope with drier, warmer climates — takes about eight years and an industry-average $130 million to develop. Genetically modified strains, which incorporate DNA from other plants, take about 12 years to reach the market.

Syngenta’s products include seeds and plants, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, but much of the lab’s research focuses on two Tar Heel staples: corn and soybeans, which accounted for $1.8 billion of Syngenta’s sales last year. “Farmers in our traditional corn-growing states are facing warmer and drier conditions than in the past. We know that farmers are facing climate challenges in lots of different areas of the world,” Goldsmith says. “Our Agrisure Artesian corn, which we recently introduced, is demonstrating a 15% or greater improvement over other seeds under heavy drought conditions.” Syngenta also develops grass and flowers. That’s significant in North Carolina, where greenhouse and landscaping plants now outrank tobacco in the state’s roughly $10.5 billion annual agriculture economy. “I tell people that if they’ve driven a car, eaten or seen a beautiful flower somewhere, they’ve encountered a Syngenta product in the course of their day.”

— Edward Martin


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