Soy-checkoff project targets 60 bushels an acre by 2025

By Ron Kotrba | July 31, 2014

The soy checkoff is spearheading a major project to boost yields for U.S. soybean farmers to an average of 60 bushels per acre, nearly 20 bushels higher than the current national average, by the year 2025. To do it, scientists are using soy-checkoff funding to harness the power of the sequenced soybean genome by using various genetic methods, such as nested association mapping (NAM), RNA sequencing and epigenetics. While this might seem ambitious, farmers are achieving extremely high yields now—in some cases, more than 100 bushels per acre—showing the goal is achievable.

USDA researcher Michelle Graham and her team are sequencing the genomes of 100 different soybean cultivars heavily adopted by U.S. farmers over the past 90 years because of their high yield potential. This will help the team identify the genes and gene combinations that have been responsible for yield increases. “This project will generate hundreds of thousands of new molecular markers that will be released to public and private researchers for use in soybean improvement,” says Graham.

At the University of Illinois, Brian Diers uses a NAM technique to find the location of important genes, helping save time in field trials. In every soybean plant cell, all of that plant’s genes are present. Expressed genes produce RNA, and scientists can sequence that RNA to find out which genes are expressed in each area of the plant.

Gary Stacey works with a team of researchers at the University of Missouri to grow soybeans under various stressful conditions. They then take samples of the different parts of these soybean plants and isolate the RNA. Next, they send the isolated RNA to the U.S. DOE Joint Genome Institute for sequencing to show how the plants react under these environmental stresses. The information is recorded and mapped to provide a “soybean genome atlas.” Stacey says this resource will save researchers time in finding the genes that are responsible for yield and other desirable traits.

Other soybean scientists study a genetic component called epigenetics to learn how soybean plants respond to pathogens, pests and other yield robbers. Scientists hope to be able to predict those responses and use them to farmers’ advantage. Epigenetics serves as a switch that determines whether a soybean plant expresses certain genes, as well as the intensity with which those genes are expressed.

“The goal of the checkoff project is really to understand how many of those switches are there in the background that we don’t know about,” says University of Georgia soybean researcher Scott Jackson.
Another collaborator on the project, University of Delaware Professor Blake Meyers, says yield is a combination of genetics and the environment, and epigenetics could help determine which varieties to use in different situations.

“The environment is not easy to predict, if it can be predicted at all,” says Meyers. “So having soybeans that can respond to the widest range of environments in a beneficial way—drought tolerance, for example—will be critical to achieving that goal of 60 bushels an acre.”

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