Research Highlights

Research Highlights
Gene Editing to Increase Soy Protein Content

By Michael Lassner, Amfora, Inc.

Over the past 40 years, the average protein content of U.S. soybeans has decreased significantly as the major seed companies breed for yield at the expense of protein. This has reduced the competitiveness of U.S. soybean meal as a feed ingredient compared to alternative feed components. 

This research is developing and commercializing gene-editing technology to increase the protein content of soybean in pursuit of two major products.

Amfora’s first soybean product will be high-protein beans, with protein increased by at least 10% but with minimal impact on oil or yield. These will be broadly licensed to U.S. soybean seed companies to improve the value of commodity beans. This will maintain the status of U.S.-grown soybean as a preferred source of high-protein meal for use in animal feed, increase value across the supply chain and reverse the trend of decreasing protein content of U.S.-grown soybeans. They will also reduce the risk of lower prices and reduced inclusion rate of soybean meal in animal feed.

A second product, ultra-high-protein beans, will increase protein content by approximately 25%, to be an ingredient for plant-based meats and aquaculture feed. For these higher values, specialty markets, growers and crushers will be contracted to vertically integrate them as a high-value meal supplier to end users. The premiums should significantly increase growers’ and crushers’ profit margins.

This technology was licensed from Iowa State University (ISU), and the inventors continue to be involved. The original ISU work, funded by the United Soybean Board, demonstrated that GMO overexpression of QQS or NF-YC4, a genetic switch, could increase the protein content of soybeans by up to 18%. After several seasons of field growth, it was concluded that the increased protein could be accomplished with little decrease in oil or yield. 

Transgenic over-expression of NF-YC4 increases seed protein content at the expense of fiber. The results above are from greenhouse-grown plants. NF-YC4 events exhibit no differences from controls in plant habit, flowering time or seed yield.

The ISU inventors also devised a strategy to use gene editing of the NF-YC4 gene to achieve similar results. Gene editing has both lower regulatory costs and faster timelines than traditional GMO technology. The USDA has adopted a policy of exempting from regulation gene-edited crops such as the soybean lines that are being developed. Since 2011, the USDA has responded to more than 75 requests affirming that products meeting certain criteria are not regulated. Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Japan, USSR and Australia also have published policies that gene-edited crops would not be regulated as GMOs.

Preliminary analyses of soybean lines grown in summer 2019 suggest that gene editing can increase the protein content of beans similarly to the transgenic lines described above. These lines are being planted in a 2019/2020 winter nursery to make homozygous stabilized lines that can be accurately assessed for protein increase and editing results. The ultimate goal is to provide edited lines that can be incorporated into breeding programs and commercialized as soybean varieties with higher protein content. In addition, backcrosses with food-grade beans will initiate the development of the ultra-high-protein beans destined as high-value ingredients for aquaculture and plant-based meats. 

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Published: May 12, 2020

The materials on SRIN were funded with checkoff dollars from United Soybean Board and the North Central Soybean Research Program. To find checkoff funded research related to this research highlight or to see other checkoff research projects, please visit the National Soybean Checkoff Research Database.