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Sequencing of soybean genome adds potential to research

Mizzou Engineering computer science faculty members Dong Xu and Jianlin Cheng, are members of a multi-disciplinary team credited with successfully sequencing the soybean genome.

Nearly 5,000 years after the first written reference to soy appeared on a list of Chinese plants, the legume’s genome has been sequenced.

Researchers at the University of Missouri were part of the large multi-disciplinary team of scientists from academia and business that successfully untangled soybean’s genetic code, paving the way to improve soybeans’ performance as a foodstuff  – for both humans and animals – and its potential use as a biofuel. Research may additionally increase soybean use in production of products now largely dependent on petroleum, including such products as plastics, lubricants and solvents.

The effort, spearheaded at MU by Gary Stacey, a professor of plant sciences and director of the Center for Sustainable Energy, also included two engineering faculty members: James C. Dowell Professor Dong Xu, who chairs the Computer Science Department, and Jianlin Cheng, an assistant professor in both computer science and the MU Informatics Institute.

Work by the pair of computer scientists has been focused on annotation of transcription factors – the attachment of biological information to this group of important genes that control the abundance of other genes in the cells, predicting their functions.

“Gene sequencing gives you a whole picture of the plant. A billion nucleotides, 60,000 genes – it’s like a periodic table; it provides the foundation for other work,” said Xu, explaining that while others generated the genomic data, he and Cheng analyzed it to see what genes were expressed in the case of various soybean attributes and environmental conditions.

“Genes are responsible for all of a plant’s traits,” Cheng explained. “For example, some mutants or variants will be more drought resistant. Improving this trait in soybeans would have a fundamental agricultural impact.”

Increased yields, higher oil and protein content and resistance to pathogens are all areas of research that will potentially benefit from gene identification.

“A large portion of this country’s soybeans is produced within a 500-mile radius of St. Louis,” said Xu, adding that the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council is very interested in this type of research. They have worked to bring recognition to the state as a leader in soybean biotechnology, as has the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology, whose Director is another of the MU researchers involved in the soybean genome project, Henry Nguyen.

“This is the first legume species to be sequenced,” said Xu, referencing the plant’s symbiotic ability to fix nitrogen from the soil for its own use. “If we understand the mechanism for this fixation, we could add that characteristic to rice. Less fertilizer would be necessary to grow it, reducing environmental impact.”

In response to those who question genetic modification of crops, Xu said, “It’s not a problem of technology; it’s a problem of how technology is used; it really depends on people. They need to act in a responsible way.”

The genetic sequencing of soybeans was largely supported by the U.S. Department of Energy. A story about the breakthrough appeared in the January issue of Nature magazine.