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Revamping soybean plant structure could boost yield, use less water

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A new computer model is helping plant breeders develop soybeans that will yield more while using less water. They say it can be done by breeding plants for slightly different leaf distribution, angles, and reflectivity, and by manipulating the competitiveness that has become a part of plants through many millions of years of evolution in the wild.

A soybean variety that can offer an 8.5 percent yield increase while using 13 percent less water — would you plant it?

While that may seem like a dream in a world with rapidly increasing food needs and shrinking water resources, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign say it’s within the realm of possibility.

They’ve created a new computer model to help plant breeders develop soybeans that will yield more while using less water. According to Science Daily, they say it can be done by breeding plants for slightly different leaf distribution, angles, and reflectivity, and by manipulating the competitiveness that has become a part of plants through many millions of years of evolution in the wild.

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Plants have evolved to try and outcompete other plants for water, nutrients, and other resources, says Stephen Long, University of Illinois plant biology professor and a co-author of the study. “But in a crop field, we want plants to share resources and conserve water and nutrients, so we’ve been looking at which leaf arrangements would best do this.”

To accomplish this, they modeled the entire soybean plant and used a “numerical optimization” technique to try a very large number of combinations of structural traits to see which combination produced the best results with respect to the three main goals.

“Surprisingly, there are combinations of these traits that can improve each of the goals at the same time,” says lead author Darren Drewry, a former post-doctoral researcher who is now at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

The model analyzes biological functions, such as photosynthesis, water use, and the physical environment, and how the plant’s biology changes with varying structural traits such as leaf area distribution, how leaves are arranged vertically on the stalk, and leaf angles.

By changing the structure of the plant so leaves are more evenly distributed, more light can penetrate the canopy, allowing photosynthesis to occur on multiple levels, thus increasing the plant’s bean producing power. A less dense canopy uses less water without affecting productivity, and changing the leaf angle can let the plant reflect back more solar radiation to help offset climate change.

“Most genetic approaches have looked at very specific traits,” says Praveen Kumar, study co-author and professor of civil and environmental engineering at UI.” But their unique modeling capability can look at the entire plant canopy in much detail, as well as modeling what plant canopies would do under various future climate scenarios.

Once the computer predicts an optimal plant structure, the crop can be selected or bred from the diverse forms of soybeans already available — without the regulation and costs associated with genetic engineering.

Read the Science Daily article here: http://bit.ly/1yf38sN

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