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Research Highlights
Farmers nationwide could benefit from southern flood tolerance research

By Carol Brown

When studying soybeans for improved flood tolerance, researchers must adapt to the environmental conditions. Henry Nguyen knows this all too well.

The Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri is leading a team of researchers in four southern states on a project to improve flood tolerance of soybeans through genetics. But flood conditions can bring this research to a standstill.

“Last year it was too wet for us, and for farmers, to get into the fields to plant at the right time,” Nguyen said. “It’s an ironic thing to be too wet to even conduct flood research at some locations and in some years such as 2019.”

The goal of the research project, supported by funding from the United Soybean Board, is to identify the soybean genes responsible for flood tolerance, which leads to better breeding lines that can minimize yield loss.

“It will be more stable for the farmer, more sustainable,” Nguyen said. “For example, if a farmer normally yields an average of 60 bushels per acre and grows soybeans with a flood tolerant gene, he could still get 40 bushels an acre, rather than a complete loss.”

But, he says of course that depends on flooding conditions and how severe the flood. He has seen flood-tolerant soybean varieties withstanding 10 to 14 days of flooding conditions and still recover.

The team has focused their screening of soybeans at the flowering stage, when the plant is at its most productive and usually irrigated at this time. But over the last few years, the rain events were occurring at all stages of the plant’s life — from early planting to early and late harvest.  Nguyen said they’ve begun to put more emphasis of their study during the early part of plant development.

“We’ve learned in the genetics there is some overlap in terms of tolerance ability at the early growth stage compared to the adult stage,” he said. “Usually, if you have something that’s tolerant at the reproductive or adult stage, it doesn’t mean that it is also tolerant at the early development stage. There are different genes involved. We’re trying to identify certain genetic ties between the stages.”

There could also be a genetic connection between flood tolerance and drought tolerance.  Nguyen also is involved in a project on soybean drought and has taken the opportunity to do cross checking to see if soybean plants bred for flood tolerance could also hold up under drought conditions. He has found soybean plants, in some cases, have both flood and drought tolerance together.

“This year we hope to extend the testing to find the common mechanism that enables the plant to be both drought and flood tolerant,” he said. “We think the root system genetics can be more adaptable, because that is the common part of the plant for flooding and drought conditions. The root has to deal with too little or too much water.”

The research project covers Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, but even though it is being conducted in the south, it could have benefits for farmers nationwide. Increased rainfall events are occurring across all soybean growing regions, and soybeans bred for flood and drought tolerance could be effective everywhere.

Nguyen and his team hope to find solutions for farmers to be able to recover 80 percent of the soybean yield potential with this genetic advancement. And there are several commercial companies interested in this material, he said. A soybean variety that is flood and drought tolerant could benefit a farmer’s patience with Mother Nature as well as improve the plant’s yield potential.

Photo by Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

This project was funded by the soybean checkoff. To find research related to this research highlight or to see other checkoff research projects, please visit the National Soybean Checkoff Research Database.