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The New Bean

March 28, 2009
By: Charles Johnson, Farm Journal Editor

Get ready for a whole new soybean. Breeders promise higher-yielding, drought-tolerant beans designed for several innovative markets. The unanswered question, of course, is age-old: Will all these scientific breakthroughs lead to more profit for farmers?

Answers may start trickling in before long. Some could come from a new drought-tolerant soybean line due out this summer from Thomas Carter, USDA–Agricultural Research Service research geneticist in Raleigh, N.C. As yet unnamed, it is the first true drought-tolerant variety released. It could add 4 bu. to 8 bu. per acre to yields that would normally be capped at about 25 bu. per acre due to drought conditions, Carter says.

This soybean, a Group VII genotype, is the product of conventional breeding work. It has no Roundup Ready gene. However, it has been made available to private industry so it could be used as parent stock in developing new biotech trait varieties. In addition, researchers in the Midwest are working on breeding the same drought-tolerant trait into Group I, II and III varieties.

"We see our role as collaborating with industry,” Carter says.

Carter began his drought-tolerant soybean work in the 1970s as a North Carolina State University doctoral student. His curiosity was piqued when he attended a global drought conference at Duke University. "It struck me that nobody was working on that trait in soybeans, yet we know that drought is the biggest limiter to production in the U.S. As soon as I got this job, the first thing I did was screen exotic germplasm on North Carolina sandpiles,” Carter says.

In 1983, while examining a five-acre plot, he realized that all of the plants were badly wilted except for three rows of a Japanese soybean cultivar. He began working with that line, and the drought-tolerant soybean soon to be released is a direct descendent from it. Carter and his coworkers around the country have found five distinct sources of soybean drought tolerance. Their next releases will include two or three independent drought-tolerant genes, he says.

Carter now has about 40 acres of plots at the Sandhills Research Station in North Carolina. Its sandy soil makes the station the perfect place to research drought characteristics, he says.

Some funding for the project came from the United Soybean Board (USB), which helped organize "Team Drought,” a group of soybean researchers from five states. They are all busy screening exotic soybean lines in an attempt to broaden the country's drought-tolerant genetic base.

U.S. geneticists in the past worked with relatively few soybean varieties. However, in China, where soybean work goes back at least 3,000 years, there are as many as 20,000 soybean landraces. U.S. scientists are mining them in a search for valuable new traits, Carter says.

An exciting time. Rick Stern, a farmer in Cream Ridge, N.J., who serves as USB's production chair, says Carter's soybean release this summer is significant. "It's a real breakthrough. He's worked many years to get to this point,” he says.

USB has pumped $7 million into soybean genome work since 1995, Stern says, helping the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute map it by mid-2008. The map should point the way to additional advances on traits ranging from yield to oil content and cyst nematode resistance.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Early Spring 2009

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