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

Multimedia Obama Defends Immigration Action

Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on 'felons, not families; criminals, not children' More

US-Led Airstrikes in Syria Kill Over 900: Monitoring Group

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the toll includes more than 50 civilians, five of them women and eight of them children More

Report: Obama Broadens US Combat Role in Afghanistan

The New York Times says resident Barack Obama has signed a classified order extending the role of US troops in Afghanistan for another year 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.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid