For millennia, people have grown soybeans and turned them into many useful products. But when it comes to understanding why a soybean grows, blooms or produces, researchers are left with unanswered questions.
Wayne Parrott, a crop and soil sciences professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, aims to find the answers with a three-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation and a jumping gene in rice found by a UGA colleague.
“I’m convinced that soybeans would be so much more useful and flexible if we knew what genes we need to be working with,” said Parrott.
The soybean’s genome was sequenced, or mapped, earlier this year. Now Parrott and his colleagues from the universities of Nebraska, Missouri-Columbia and Minnesota are taking soybeans’ genetic map and translating it so that breeders can use it to produce a better bean.
Parrott is using a jumping rice gene for his part of the research. His counterparts are using radiation.
Sue Wessler, plant biology professor at UGA, found the jumping gene in rice. Her discovery is unique. The gene is one of only a few with the ability to cut themselves out of and move to another location in the genome, altering it, according to Parrott.
She shared the technology. Parrott’s lab will insert the jumping rice gene into soybean plants. When something changes in a plant with the added jumping gene-such as how fast it flowers-they will then search the plant genetically. When they find the jumping gene-presumably in a new location in the genome-they can identify the modified gene there and understand what caused the plant to bloom faster.
The more genes they identify using the jumping gene technique, the more they’ll know about the soybean and what they can do to improve it. The soybean has a few issues that could stand modifying, according to Parrott.
On grocery store shelves, soybeans may seem like the perfect plant. Soybeans can be made into tofu and its synthetic meat products. However, the bean’s protein is not balanced to the 21 amino acids humans need for a healthy diet. In addition, soybean oil contains trans fats after it’s processed.
On the agricultural side, an improved soybean variety would allow farmers to plant a crop that produces more soybeans using the same amount of land. And with soybean plants that are disease and insect resistant, farmers wouldn’t have to apply as much money-draining pesticides.
Farmers also could grow varieties that produce more oil or protein.
“Genome sequencing and gene discovery is starting to open a new, exciting era for us,” Parrott said.
It’s a good time for soybeans. Since 1982, the U.S. has had a 15 percent increase in total soybean production.
“Acreage-wise, soybeans are among the top three crops in the U.S.,” Parrott said. “It’s the No. 1 source of vegetable oil and vegetable protein. In that regard, it’s the most important of the crops.”
Soybeans are used for adhesives, alternative fuels, disinfectants, plastics, salad dressings, particleboard, candy, cookies and swine feed, to name a few.
“It just boggles the mind that it lends itself to so many different uses,” Parrott said. “It’s even in furniture care products.”