USDA's National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program will provide up to $5 million of funding for functional genomics and bioinformatics on legume crops such as soybeans.

Research on legume plants offers unique opportunities for basic gene and genomics studies to improve the nutrition, yield and disease-resistance of soybeans and other legume crops. The funding is a major accomplishment for the U.S. Legume Crops Genomics Initiative, a four-year cooperative effort.

“The American Soybean Association has chaired the Legume Crops Genome Initiative from its inception,” said Joe Layton, ASA board member and a soybean producer from Vienna, Md. “ASA's participation convinced the other legume crops that cooperation and collaboration was important to the soybean industry, and ASA has continued to provide leadership in the lobbying activities that resulted in this funding.”

Layton, the current LCGI chairman, was preceded by former ASA board member and ASA past-president Marc Curtis, a soybean producer from Leland, Miss.

Approximately $8.5 million total will be spent through the NRI plant genome program, and legume crops are the big winners. The NRI is dedicating $2.5 million to cross-legume genomics and another $2.5 million to plant genome tools, resources and bioinformatics with Fabaceae projects as the priority.

This will provide more knowledge about the genomes of all the legumes, which will lead to the identification of genes with desirable characteristics that can be more easily transferred from other legumes into soybean plants through either biotechnology or traditional breeding methods.

“LCGI's greatest contribution was that it brought together the major U.S. legume commodity associations and their respective research communities,” Layton said. “I also want to thank USDA's Agricultural Research Service and Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service for its vision in encouraging the coalition to form, and for its support and participation in our meetings.”

The other LCGI participants are the American Alfalfa Alliance, National Dry Bean Council, Peanut Foundation, United Soybean Board and USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.

“There is some research to suggest that a common bean like the kidney bean (Phaseolus) may be resistant to Asian soybean rust,” Layton said. “This is just one example of how this project will help us better understand disease resistance in general, and identify genes that can be useful in other ways to protect our soybean crop.”

Functional genomics refers to the function of each gene in the genome. Each “chunk” of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) codes for a different protein. Functional genomics figures out how more than a billion bases makes genes that code for the proteins that build a soybean plant.

The NRI funding is for making comparisons between two legume species. For example, the “common bean” appears to be resistant to Asian soybean rust. By comparing the soybean genome with the common bean gene, there will be very few differences, but one of those differences will be the reason that common the bean is resistant to rust and the soybean is not.

Bioinformatics involves the use of computers to collect, analyze and store genomics information. The soybean has more than 1 billion base pairs (haploid genome). That information needs to be stored correctly so that researchers are able to pull out “chunks” to analyze and compare with “chunks” from other species.

Gene markers will also be identified. Marker-assisted breeding cuts down the time of developing new soybean varieties from around seven to about five years. In addition, the project will help researchers better understand why some people are allergic to peanuts, while others are allergic to soybeans, yet no one seems to be allergic to peas.

“Since the on-farm benefits of this project are down the road, soybean growers should view this accomplishment as an important investment in our future,” Layton said. “I am confident there will be things we learn that researchers have not even thought about before.”