News / Science & Technology

Researchers Unravel Soybean's Genetic Code

Pillar of American agriculture poised to take off as next generation of jet fuel

First domesticated by the Chinese more than 3000 years ago, the soybean is one of the pillars of American agriculture.
First domesticated by the Chinese more than 3000 years ago, the soybean is one of the pillars of American agriculture.

Multimedia

Audio

The soybean has fed generations of Asians, fattened countless head of livestock and is now poised to take off as the next generation of jet fuel. Scientists have decoded the legume's genetic sequence.

First domesticated by the Chinese more than 3,000 years ago, the soybean is one of the pillars of American agriculture. About 30 million hectares of soybeans are harvested each year.

But it wasn't always so. The rise of the soybean in America is a 20th-century phenomenon.

American farmers first used soybeans for animal feed

"Something had to be grown in rotation with corn," says Scott Jackson, professor of plant genetics at Purdue University. Corn, which is also called maize, is the other pillar of American agriculture. Maize takes a lot of nutrients out of the soil. One of the virtues of the soybean plant is that it replaces those nutrients.

Researchers are working on scanning tens of thousands of different soybean varieties to look for useful traits.
Researchers are working on scanning tens of thousands of different soybean varieties to look for useful traits.

 

But for years farmers just harvested soybean plants for hay.  That changed around mid-century, Jackson says, when scientists starting asking themselves, "Well, what else can we use it for?"

They discovered it was useful for feeding poultry, says Jim Hershey, executive director of the World Initiative for Soy and Human Health.

"People realized that if you fed a chicken a mixture of corn and soy, that chicken grew a lot faster," he says, "which effectively reduced the cost of raising poultry, which helped a lot of people's diets all around the world, including here in the [United] States."

Hershey says chicken went from being an occasional luxury to an everyday meal. Today, most of the world's soybeans go to feed not just chickens, but cows, pigs and even fish. Soy protein and oil also find their way into a wide variety of processed foods for people.

From animal feed to bio-fuel and beyond

But food is just the beginning. Marty Ross works for the United Soybean Board which is a U.S. trade group. He says that, in the 1930s, an auto industry pioneer found soybeans made a pretty good plastic. "Henry Ford, of course, discovered, 'You know what, I can make automobile trunk lids and fenders out of soybean oil,'" he says.

Since then, Jackson says that researchers have produced an incredible range of products made from soybeans. "Everything from crayons to jet fuel," he says. Soy-based biodiesel fuel is making its way into the market today, along with carpeting, roofing materials, inks, adhesives and more.

Experts are predicting a great leap forward for this Chinese bean. In the Jan. 14 issue of the journal Nature, Jackson and a group of scientists announced they have unraveled the genetic code of one common variety. The discovery should dramatically speed up the process of breeding better strains.

Using the genetic code to speed research on several fronts

The United Soybean Board's production chairman, Rick Stern is excited about the possibilities. "The advancement we're going to make on the production and research side of things in the next 10 years is going to rival the last 100 years," he says.

One of the first advancements researchers are working on is scanning tens of thousands of different soybean varieties, including wild relatives, to look for useful traits. Jackson says that's important because most soybeans grown in the U.S. are very similar genetically. "And that's a real problem when you're trying to overcome new insect or disease threats or pressures, or trying to breed a plant that's more water efficient, or even finding genetic variation for water production."

Jackson says having one genome in hand will make it easier to spot useful genetic variations in other strains.
 
Soybeans are related to a number of other important legume crops which gives plant breeders around the world a head start in improving food production, Jackson says. He adds that scientists are working with investigators around the world to leverage the investment that went into the soybean for cowpea, chick pea, pigeon pea and other beans.

Helping breeders quickly develop better varieties of all these crops will be crucial as the world population tops 9 billion by 2050 in the face of a changing climate.

You May Like

ASEAN Ministers Set to Push for South China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs