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

Hostage Crisis Could Divide Japan Over Plans to Boost Military

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday the government is working closely with the Jordanian government to secure the release of remaining Japanese hostage Kenji Goto More

Video Brussels Shaken as New Greek Leader Challenges Europe’s Austerity Drive

Country's youngest ever PM Alexis Tsipras, 40, sworn in Monday and says he will restore dignity to Greece by ending spending cuts More

Multimedia National Geographic Photo Camps Empower Youth

Annual mentoring program's mission is to give young people a voice to tell their own stories through photography 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.
Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visiti
X
Aru Pande
January 26, 2015 9:33 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video US, EU Threaten New Russia Sanctions Over Ukraine

U.S. President Barack Obama has blamed Russia for an attack by Ukrainian separatists that left dozens dead in the port of Mariupol and cast further doubt on the viability of last year’s cease-fire with the Kyiv government. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Kerry Warns Against Violence in Nigeria Election

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria Sunday in a show of the level of concern within the U.S. and the international community over next month’s presidential election. Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, and even music, are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. VOA’s June Soh met some animal artists at the zoo in Washington. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Saudi, Yemen Developments Are Sudden Complications for Obama

The death of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and the collapse of Yemen’s government have cast further uncertainty on U.S. efforts to fight militants in the Middle East and also contain Iran’s influence in the region. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports on the new complications facing the Obama administration and its Middle East policy.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid