New & Now:

Bean Breakthrough: Completed genomic sequence ushers in a new era for the already legendary legume.

The soybean, arguably the most useful plant product in the world, has officially joined the ranks of the genomically decoded. According to one of the scientists responsible, Henry Nguyen, a professor of plant sciences and the director of the MU-based National Center for Soybean Biotechnology, the achievement could usher in a new era for the already legendary legume.

Soybeans have been an important protein source for both people and livestock for centuries. More recently, soy has become a key component in industrial products such as solvents, adhesives, inks, lubricants and insulating foams. And that’s just the beginning. Millions of consumers cook with soybean oil. Soy and newsprint-based “biocomposites” are used as wood substitutes in furniture, flooring and counter tops. Many plastics are manufactured using soybeans. And, thanks in part to an enthusiastic endorsement by singer Willie Nelson, soy-based biodiesel has gained wide acceptance as a clean-burning alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

These and other demands have pushed soy production to all-time highs—in recent years world harvests have exceeded eight billion bushels—and experts expect the numbers to keep rising. Because farmland is limited, keeping up with demand will require more than just tilling more acreage. It means growing hardier, more productive plants. That’s where genetic research comes in.

“The genome sequence will be a new tool for plant breeders, industrial engineers, geneticists, biochemists, technologists, nutritionists and anyone else who uses soybeans worldwide,” Nguyen says. “With knowledge of which genes control which soybean traits, scientists may be able to better adapt the plant to drought conditions, bringing a new cash crop and food product to poor areas of the Earth.”

The MU scientists, Nguyen, Jay Thelen, Jianlin Cheng and Gary Stacey worked with 41 co-authors to publish the 1.1 million base pairs of DNA in the soybean genome. These include more than 90 distinct traits that affect plant development, productive characteristics, disease resistance, seed quality and nutrition.

Bean Breakthrough Scientists identified 1.1 million DNA base pairs in the soybean genome, including more than 90 distinct development traits. Photo by Rob Hill.

Nguyen says MU plant scientists have already begun collaborating with animal science and nutrition experts to modify soybeans added to animal feeds. This could improve the nutritional value of meat. They are also working to pinpoint which proteins or genes contribute to drought tolerance in the root systems of the plants.

“Perhaps the most exciting thing that we have found for the soybean community is the gene that confers resistance to the devastating Asian soybean rust disease,” Nguyen says. “In countries where this rust is well established, soybean losses can range from 10 to 80 percent. Improved soybean strains resistant to the disease will greatly benefit production and increase foodstuffs around the world.”

The research, “Genome Sequence of the Palaeopolyploid Soybean,” was featured on the cover of the January 14th edition of the journal Nature.

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