The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and USDA have joined forces to work on the study of plant and microbial genomics. The project funded by this partnership is an $11-million-dollar effort to decode the soybean genome.

The DOE's Joint Genomics Institute (JGI) works to map the genomes of crops that meet rising needs in energy demand and food consumption. The DOE/JGI expressed interest in soybeans because they're a versatile crop able to be used in food, industrial applications and for biofuels.

"There are a large number of challenges faced by the soybean industry," says Gary Stacey, Associate Director of the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology at the University of Missouri. "Challenges such as Asian soybean rust, new regulations concerning trans-fatty acids in foods and increasing international trade competition affect U.S. soybean farmers, and research-based solutions to these kinds of problems will be greatly aided by knowledge of the soybean genome."

The research project that Stacey works on will be one of three soybean checkoff-funded projects that will benefit from the DOE grant. The other two projects are headed by Perry Cregan, of USDA-ARS and Jan Dvorak, of the University of California-Davis. Stacey, Cregan and Dvorak have collaborated closely, and the results of the three projects are being compiled into a fully integrated physical-genetic soybean map that can be used by soybean scientists as a resource.

"In the spring of 2003, the United Soybean Board (USB) hosted 25 soybean genome researchers in St. Louis," says Jim Sallstrom, USB director and a soybean farmer from Winthrop, MN. "The common goal was to find a way to sequence the soybean genome. The group specifically targeted projects that were of top priority, and several million dollars of soybean farmer checkoff funds were dedicated to the effort."

The efforts of the genome researchers and the initial genomics projects funded by the soybean checkoff played a role in leveraging the $11 million from the DOE's Joint Genomics Institute. This will lead to further research, which in turn will benefit the entire soybean industry. A better understanding of soybean genomics will allow for opportunities for soybean farmers to remain competitive through meeting market needs, whether that may be increased oil content for biodiesel production or improved protein quality. Genomic tools will aid the search for disease and stress resistance.

"The really important and exciting part about the DOE/JGI effort is that the whole sequence of the soybean genome will be available for soybean researchers to access and use to better understand how the soybean works and to determine how best to improve traits of interest," says Cregan.

"Having the soybean genome sequenced will benefit soybean farmers in two major ways," says Sallstrom. "First, there will be more rapid soybean yield improvements, and, second, there will be improved oil qualities and meal characteristics."

Sequencing the genome will not just provide opportunities for yield and trait improvements, but opportunities to pass these along to U.S. farmers at a faster rate than before.

"What we will be able to do with the information gained from the DOE/JGI funding can trim anywhere from three to six years off the time from the initial genetic cross to the production of a new cultivar for release to farmers," says Stacey. "It will also be a tremendous aid to our basic research programs, leading to a better understanding of the soybean plant."