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Breeding effects on corn hybrids

Innovative research to understand long-term breeding effects on corn hybrids


Corn hybrids are the result of crossbreeding two genetically distinct inbred lines, combining desirable traits from both parent lines to produce a hybrid that exhibits improved performance, such as higher yields, better stress tolerance, and enhanced disease resistance. This process, known as hybridization, has been a cornerstone of modern agriculture, allowing farmers to grow crops that are more productive and resilient.

Pioneer-brand corn hybrids have been developed and sold to farmers in the central-US Corn-belt continuously since 1926. Over nearly 100 years, thousands of Pioneer hybrids have been released for commercial sale, many of which have proven to be popular among customers.

Interested in understanding the basis of improvements in their commercial products, Pioneer maintains seed stocks of all commercial parental inbred lines and re-creates several of these historically important hybrids for annual field testing and evaluation.

Commonly referred to as ERA hybrids, key representative hybrids from each decade (1930’s to current time) are evaluated in field trials to explore various hypotheses regarding yield improvement and product performance. The first Pioneer ERA studies were made public in the 1970’s (Duvick, 1977, Maydica 22:187-196).

ERA hybrids have been used to test a wide array of hypotheses, including: (i) maize grain yield over time and estimates of overall yield gain, genetic gain, and agronomic gain, (ii) changes in stress tolerance, such as high plant density stress, water deficits, and nitrogen deficiency, (iii) anatomical and morphological changes, (iv) physiological processes, such as grain filling duration, radiation use efficiency, harvest index, nitrogen use efficiency, nitrogen uptake, plant biomass partitioning and metabolism, (v) genetic changes, and (vi) integration of crop models and genomic selection to improve the efficiency of breeder selection. These results have been summarized in different articles (Duvick et al., 2004, Plant Breeding Rev. 24:109–151; Messina et al., 2024, J. Exp. Bot. 74:4847-4861).

Collectively, the vast array of work with ERA hybrids has identified many direct and indirect effects of breeder selection for improved grain yield. These studies have provided insights into potential mechanisms of yield improvements in corn germplasm adapted to the central US Corn-belt. ERA studies have demonstrated significant changes in crop morphology and development, such as decreased tassel size, increased leaf angle, increased root branching, shortened anthesis-to-silking interval (ASI), and increased stay-green (Campos et al., 2004, Field Crops Res. 90:19-34). Experiments evaluating ERA hybrids have identified improved density tolerance, and general stress tolerance overall, as a primary agronomic mechanism to achieve higher corn yields.  Modern corn hybrids have higher rates of nitrogen uptake and nitrogen use efficiency, driven primarily by late season increased nitrogen uptake (DeBruin et al., 2016, Crop Sci. 57:1431-1446; Ciampitti et al., 2012, Field Crops Res. 133:48-67). Many of these results are consistently demonstrated in various sources of germplasm adapted to the central US Corn-belt and in germplasm adapted to corn-growing regions in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and China (Tollenaar et al., 1999, Crop Sci. 39:1597-1604; Luque et al., 2004, Field Crops Res. 95:383–397; Borras et al., 2018, J. Exp. Bot. 69:3235-3243; Liu et al., Field Crops Res. 302:109065) 

Despite these advances, we still face many gaps in our understanding of the long-term impact of breeder selection on maize yield improvement. We are thus seeking new ideas/hypotheses that could be tested with these historical products from perspectives that have not been considered before.


Submission deadline:
September 1, 2024, by 8 p.m. US Eastern Time


Up to $75,000, inclusive of all indirect costs

Who Should Apply

  • Researchers or institutions with existing technologies that can be adapted to solve this challenge
  • Public and private sector institutions and organizations with related experience and interest

What we're looking for

We are looking for proposals that describe novel ideas and concepts to be investigated using ERA hybrids. These proposals should present a plan to answer new questions about indirect breeding effects and their implications.

We are open to partner with scientists and institutions with expertise in plant breeding, agronomy, ecology, crop physiology, plant biology, climate change, molecular biology, food science, or any related discipline.

We are especially interested in  expanding beyond ideas previously tested.

Solutions of interest include:

Novel ideas and concepts exploring any of (but not limited to) the following:

  • unexplored physiological traits
  • novel phenotyping tools
  • sustainability implications
  • management effects
  • environmental response
  • climate change adaptations

Our must-have requirements are:

  • Novelty in the approach and/or in the questions to be answered.
  • Proposals must include a description of objectives and hypotheses, a clear research plan and timeline, any needed trials to reach these objectives, and available resources

Our nice-to-have's are:

  • A clear description of the study's relevance to the maize hybrid seed business.

Who Should Submit?

  • Researchers or institutions with existing technologies that can be adapted to solve this challenge
  • Public and private sector institutions and organizations with related experience and interest

What Can You Expect?

For submissions received by  September 1 @ 8:00 PM ET:

  • We will evaluate your submission and notify you of its status by November 1, 2024.
  • An Open Innovation representative will contact selected finalists to arrange a virtual discussion with Corteva scientists under confidentiality and to provide additional details on the selection process.

For selected proposals: 

  • Submitters will engage with Corteva scientists to develop an agreed upon project plan 
  • Continued interactions with Corteva scientists throughout the project

How Can We Help?

  • Seed from the Pioneer/Corteva hybrids released to the market since 1934 to present (58 Corteva/Pioneer ERA hybrids plus Reid Yellow Dent from 1920) will be available for the proposal winners to conduct any necessary experiments (if needed).
  • Funding (up to $75,000, inclusive of all indirect costs).
  • Corteva in-kind resources as applicable and necessary for project success.
  • Opportunities for extended collaboration and additional funding if successful.