The New Bean

March 28, 2009 07:21 AM

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.

"I'm excited about this. Where it used to take 10 years to get genetic improvements, we will now see new varieties faster, within three to five years,” Stern says.

"It gives us a genetic fingerprint of soybean varieties. We can identify whether the genes are for diseases or pests. Our accelerated yield technology program allows us to use these molecular markers to stack genes to enhance yields,” explains John Soper, Pioneer Hi-Bred's senior research director for soybean product development, located in Johnston, Iowa.

Scientists have identified about 100 genes associated with yield. By enhancing yield-boosting genetics along with a new focus on genetic answers to pests, such as cyst nematode, and various diseases, it may be possible to push up soybean yields 40% during the next decade, Soper says.

"We're fairly confident we can double the rate of genetic gain to growers,” he says. "This is an exciting time to work with soybeans. Between 2011 and 2015, we're going to see a number of transgenic and non-transgenic traits introduced. In 2009, we're introducing on a limited basis high-oleic soybeans, which will provide an oil profile similar to olive oil and will be a very healthy part of the diet.”

Ping Feng, Monsanto Company's crop analytical team leader in Ankeny, Iowa, echoes Soper's sentiments. "We're getting higher-yielding soybeans with better quality. We're analyzing every single plant for transfats. That's a big deal. Not only are we getting higher yield but also better fats. We're moving into the world of consumer benefits as well as farmers' benefits,” he says.

Transfat-free soybean varieties should be worth a premium paid to farmers under contract to processors, as will varieties with Omega 3 fatty acids and other oil modifications, Feng says.

"We're testing in the lab. We're testing in the field. Of course, yield is still the key. We're looking for higher yield,” Feng says. Monsanto executives anticipate doubling the national soybean yield by 2030, the same goal they've set for corn.

Dan Dyer, head of Syngenta's soybean product development, says he expects overall yield increases to come by way of a combination of factors. "It will be an integration of technologies. Basic genetic potential and traits is one part, then we'll integrate those with improved crop protection and seed care. It will take a total management package,” Dyer says.

"As for yield, in 30 years we've seen a progression in yield of about 1.5% a year. We don't see evidence of a yield plateau in national trends or yield trials. In fact, further north, in the Dakotas, we've seen a pretty dramatic improvement in soybean yield. Our experience is that growers farming on the best ground with the best genetics—in Iowa, let's say—should expect 60-bu. yields. In 2008, we saw a lot of 70-bu. yields. We were concerned about the weather problems of 2008, but genetics are so good we saw good yields in less than favorable conditions.”

Modern breeding techniques help geneticists respond quickly to farmers' needs, Dyer says. "We're seeing bigger increases coming faster with a shortened development cycle. We have major investments around the world, with facilities in Chile, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Plant breeding is now a worldwide business. It's a matter of compound interest. The best variety of today becomes the parent of tomorrow's beans. The faster the turn, the faster the gains,” Dyer says.

You can e-mail Charles Johnson at

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