MU researchers attempt to decipher genetic code of soybeans

Thursday, February 23, 2012 | 12:42 p.m. CST; updated 3:25 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 23, 2012

COLUMBIA — MU researchers are attempting to sequence more than 1,000 commercially important soybean varieties in an effort to decipher the soybeans' genetic codes.

Soybeans are the second largest agricultural export in the U.S. and the top commercial crop in Missouri, worth nearly $2.5 billion, according to a news release from MU's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

Grover Shannon, the associate director of the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology at MU, said sequencing is different from the process to genetically modify crops, as some might believe.

"It's basically identifying the make-up of the thousands of different genes within the soybean genomes," Shannon said.

Genetically modified crops have inserted DNA from a foreign species for desirable traits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

Sequencing the 1,008 varieties of soybeans will take about one year, said Henry Nguyen, the director of the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology.

Nguyen said he chose 1,008 varieties of soybeans because the number eight symbolizes prosperity in China, where soybeans were first domesticated.

Nguyen said they can potentially map out 3,000 soybean varieties for this project at a cost of $3 million.

"With the development of technology, we have the capacity to do so now," Nguyen said. "We were not even able to think about this five years ago."

The sequencing is being conducted by the Beijing Genomics Institute, the world's largest genome sequencing center. 

The genome information will help researchers to figure out how differences in genetic functions cause different traits in soybean varieties, Nguyen said.

"We will be able to find out the important genetic elements that impact the quality and quantity of soybeans," Nguyen said. "We will know what genes control productivity, what genes control disease resistance, drought tolerance and nutritional qualities."

The genome data from this project will be available to the public, Nguyen said.

Shannon said the sequencing project will have a lot of practical benefits. 

"In three to four years, soybean breeders will be able to spend about half the amount of time to breed and develop improved soybean varieties tailored with all the seed and plant traits desired by farmers, oil processors, food manufacturers and consumers," Shannon said.

"It's going to be phenomenal one day."

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