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.


    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    You May Like

    US Lawmakers Vow to Continue Immigrant Program for Afghan Interpreters

    Congressional inaction threatens funding for effort which began in 2008 and has allowed more than 20,000 interpreters, their family members to immigrate to US

    Leaderless, Rudderless, Britain Drifts

    Experts predicted chaos would follow, if Britain decided to vote for Brexit, and chaos has

    US to Train Cambodian Government on Combating Cybercrime

    Concerns raised over drafting of law, as critics fear cybercrime regulations could be used to restrict freedom of expression and stifle political dissent

    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.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora