Soybeans aren't being left behind in the fast-growing science of genomics.

Genomics is the science of identifying, at the cellular level, what makes a plant work in order to improve its characteristics. Scientists say genomics research should enable them to identify genes that contribute to beneficial traits such as pest resistance and drought tolerance.

In the past couple of years, millions of dollars have been allocated in the private and public sectors for this type of research. While corn has been the focus of several studies, soybeans are now grabbing a bigger share of genomics research dollars.

Most recently, the National Science Foundation (NSF) approved $4.5 million in funding for a major soybean genomics project involving five land grant universities. The research builds on a genomics project funded by the North Central Soybean Research Program (NCSRP) and the United Soybean Board.

Randy Shoemaker, a USDA-ARS geneticist at Iowa State University and a lead investigator in the NSF and NCSRP projects, says genes express themselves to their living organisms by producing messages. These messages, which can be cloned and decoded, are called expressed sequence tags (ESTs).

Researchers plan to decode 200,000 to 300,000 ESTs during the next three to four years.

"We don't yet know what all these genes do," says Shoemaker. "The genome project will allow us to discover many of the genes and gene sequences involved in protein and oil synthesis, disease resistance and plant stress responses."

The codes of each gene message will be put into a public database and the cloned messages will be available for distribution. Soybean geneticists will be able to search a comprehensive database to determine how specific genes perform under varying conditions.

"This is clearly the type of research that will allow U.S. soybean growers to remain at the forefront of production efficiency," he adds. "Herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant transgenic plants are only the beginning of a very exciting era in crop improvement."