Researchers map the soybean genome

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 9th February 2010

Researchers, funded by the US Department of Energy, have completely mapped the soybean genome, according to a study published in Nature magazine.  They have also begun comparing soybean DNA to traits in the growing plant, allowing scientists to select for desirable characteristics such as plant hardiness, digestibility, disease resistance, and reduced environmental impact.

Soy products

Soybeans (Glycine max) are one of the world’s largest staple crops, and can be made into an enormous variety of food products. In addition to their usefulness as a crop, soybeans and their legume kin are nitrogen fixers – natural fertilizers for other crops grown in the same ground.  Soy biodiesel has also been flagged as a source of cleaner energy.

Henry Nguyen, director of the Univeristy of Missouri’s National Center for Soybean Biotechnology, believes the research will assist all who use soybeans and their derivatives.  A database of soybean traits and genetic markers will allow scientists and growers to ‘custom-make’ soy strains – for example, using the gene which allows soy to resist the devastating Asian soybean rust disease, or by increasing drought resistance. One genetic marker allows the grower to reduce levels of phytate, reducing environmental contaminant when soy is used as swine and poultry feed. Another reduces stachyose, which makes the soybeans easier to digest by humans and animals.

Soy is mostly grown in Australia in rotation with other crops – rice and other irrigated products in the south, and in the north, cotton, sugarcane and cattle pasture.  Australian soy ends up as tofu, soymilk, soy flour, oil and protein meal.  The CSIRO believes that higher-value soy products for export, such as tofu and natto (a Japanese fermented soybean product) could be extremely profitable. “Soybeans could be grown more extensively in Australia to take greater advantage of international markets. Australia is particularly well placed to do this as it can grow soybean in the off-season of the northern hemisphere production systems potentially supplying to important markets like Japan.”

The implications of the mapping of the soybean genome are wide-reaching. According to Nguyen, “With knowledge of which genes control which soybean traits, scientists may be able to better adapt the plant to drought conditions, bringing a new cash crop and food product to poor areas of the Earth.”