Research Highlights

Research Highlights
Kansas researchers breed better soybeans at the genetic level

Kansas State University professor Bill Schapaugh checks soybean plant crosses at a research plot.

By Carol Brown

How does one make a better soybean? This question is on William Schapaugh’s mind every day. The Kansas State University agronomy professor has been a soybean breeder his entire 40-year career and he remains committed to improve the bean.

With grants from the Kansas Soybean Commission, United Soybean Board and the North Central Soybean Research Program (NCSRP), he and fellow faculty members Tim Todd and Harold Trick work together finding solutions to soybean issues through genetic improvement.

In the past three years the team has released four soybean germplasm varieties and they plan on releasing two or three more this spring. The varieties will help increase resistance to plant diseases including soybean cyst nematode (SCN) and sudden death syndrome (SDS) and improve seed yield. The germplasm is available for commercial production and to other researchers across the country to continue variety development, which will in time improve farmers’ yields and profits.

Project details

Schapaugh recently led a three-year research project with support from the Kansas Soybean Commission. The project has three components: variety development, genetic diversity and genetic gain through improved technology.

A soybean flower is pollinated in a Kansas State University research plot.

“With the first component, we’re working to develop new varieties in maturity groups III–V that can be used by farmers for commercial production or used as parents in crosses by other soybean breeders to develop more varieties.”

This component focuses on developing germplasm that increases the amount of protein in soybean oil and improves oil composition, as well as stronger disease resistance for SCN and SDS.

The second part of the research project targets improved genetic diversity.

“There’s a limited amount of genetic diversity that’s available for commercial improvement,” Schapaugh said. “We’re interested in sorting through it and trying to identify new good genetic variation that can contribute to breeding programs throughout the country.”

This is where Schapaugh’s teammates come in. Trick is a plant transformationist and Todd is a plant nematologist. They are working with Schapaugh on developing resistance to SDS, SCN and root knot nematode (RKN) through plant transformations. Trick also leads several other soybean breeding projects through the Kansas Soybean Commission.

The third component of the research project explores technology to improve the speed and accuracy of the soybean breeding process.

“Genetic gain continues to be made in soybeans, but it takes more effort and more money to achieve a certain unit of genetic gain,” Schapaugh said. “We’re focusing on two areas for that: one is high throughput phenotyping and the other is genomic selection.”

Students at Kansas State University prepare the remote sensing drone for a flight to capture aerial images of a soybean field.

Schapaugh is using remote sensing drones in breeding plots to help improve the plant selection process. Using the drone’s imagery data, he selects plants with certain traits. In this project, Schapaugh focused on plants that seemed to have higher yield potential and drought tolerance. The soybean phenotypes selected with this technology were then evaluated in extensive yield trials.  He then compared whether the digital imagery used to make the phenotype selections was beneficial.

He is finding that in some breeding populations, the performance of the progeny selected using remote sensing phenotypes is superior to progeny that were selected in other ways. The team will continue to evaluate how this technology can be used to improve the breeding process.

Various components of this research project are interwoven with other breeding projects including an NCSRP project led by Leah McHale at Ohio State University, and the United Soybean Board (USB) projects led by Tommy Carter with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in North Carolina and George Graef at the University of Nebraska.

Germplasm developed through Schapaugh’s research team is shared with both public and private breeders to provide them with the best material available. With many people working together, soybeans continue to improve farmer profitability as well as animal and human health.

Plant breeding primer

Some of the terminology that plant geneticists use is not usually part of common vocabulary. Below are simple explanations to some of the terms used here.

Germplasm: living tissue from which new plants can be grown. This could be a seed or another part of the plant – a piece of leaf, stem or even a few cells. The germplasm contains the information for a species genetic makeup.

Genotype: all genetic information contained in an organism

Phenotype: an organism’s observable characteristics or traits, which result from its genetic code and the influence of environmental factors

Plant transformation: the process of taking DNA from a plant species and inserting into the genome of a targeted species to create a new species.

Related genetic research projects

Published: Jan 28, 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.