Research Highlights
Soybean Breeding and Genetics is Thriving in Nebraska

Photo: United Soybean Board

By Carol Brown

To help achieve the best productivity from crop fields, farmers select seeds for planting that have the right combination of features for their location including insect and disease resistance, herbicide and fungicide tolerance and more. Soybean seeds that appear on the commercial market with new or enhanced qualities like these have gone through a lot to get there. 

Those seeds have been scrutinized at-length by soybean breeders — and they just may have been from the team of scientists at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL).

George Graef, Tom Clemente and David Hyten — all in the UNL Agronomy and Horticulture Department — are employing complementary approaches for the continuous improvement of soybean genetics. Their work has been supported for many years by the Nebraska Soybean Board (NSB) through the soybean checkoff. The NSB is cognizant of the importance of this work in the public sector, which is reflected by their investment of more than a million dollars annually in the breeding and genetics area. In FY2021, of the $1.76 million devoted to research, $1.1 million was allocated to breeding and genetics research activities. 

“Our board has valued the results that we’ve gotten from George and the breeding program at the University, and we have a long-running relationship with the team,” says Eugene Goering, NSB president and farmer from Columbus, Neb. “Investing soybean checkoff dollars in this area brings a good return to growers in Nebraska and across the Midwest.”

The team agrees with Goering and they fully appreciate the NSB support for their genetics research programs. 

“It’s the people on the Nebraska Soybean Board who have helped make our program successful,” says Graef, plant breeding and genetics professor. “The Nebraska Soybean Board has shown consistent, generous support of research in general, particularly in genetics and breeding. That kind of strong and continued support makes a big difference in what can be achieved.”

Why Nebraska for soybean genetics?

Everything just fell into place, Graef says, to make the state one of the top spots for soybean breeding and genetics. 

“Nebraska is a good place to do research. We have a strong, extensive field research program,” comments Graef. “We can do great research here because of the environments we have, including high-yield, irrigated environments, non-irrigated production, and significant areas with some important environmental stresses like drought and iron-deficiency chlorosis (IDC). Support from the University’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources for our programs, including infrastructure and recognition of the values of our field research environment, is also a key factor. All of this comes together with the desire and decisions by the board to support research that’s important for producers and the soybean industry.”

The trio of scientists represent all aspects of plant breeding and genetics. Hyten, a crop geneticist, focuses on finding approximations within the genome where a particular gene could be. Clemente, a plant pathologist by training and biotechnologist by trade, takes that information and fine-tunes it to achieve novel traits targeting both the producer and the consumer. Graef, a plant breeder, works to combine important traits to develop new elite soybean varieties.

“The disciplines of Hyten, Clemente and Graef all inter-relate,” says Goering. “Each of their disciplines enhances the work and the results of the other.”

Clemente agrees that this working relationship is a collective and says they each have a role, but the ultimate goal is to supply the plant breeder with new material. 

“That’s what we have in Nebraska — we all have the pieces that connect and feed through the ‘build–test–learn’ aspect,” says Clemente. “We provide the plant breeder with the genetic variation that will ultimately complement their selection strategies.”

Working for the farmer

Photo: United Soybean Board

When this trio works, they continually ask themselves, ‘How is this serving the soybean producer?’ Hyten believes this reason is why NSB continues to fund their work and because the team works together to enhance the productivity of the soybean crop.

“We don’t work in silos, independent of one another,” says Hyten. “We support each other’s programs and I think the board recognizes that. We are working together on problems that farmers see in their fields. I think it would be different if we were just on our own, focusing only on our projects.”

Over the years, the team has made significant advancements in the soybean industry. Clemente is proud to have contributed toward the development of dicamba tolerance in both soybean and cotton currently on the market. Graef has worked to increase soybean seed protein as well as the soybean gaining a better balance of protein, oil and carbohydrates without a yield reduction. Hyten has found that the wild soybean, Glycine soja, is where the focus needs to be to find increased genetic diversity, which has not been the industry norm. 

“I’m always trying to find new diversity to bring into the program; as genetic diversity is an ongoing issue,” Hyten says. “The nature of plant breeding narrows diversity. If we’re not integrating new diversity, eventually we won’t be able to make improvements.”

The Nebraska Soybean Board and the UNL geneticists and breeders have honed their working relationship so both achieve success. The scientists attend board meetings and listen to farmers’ concerns and they get feedback from the board on their work. Ultimately, if their research isn’t going to help the farmer, they won’t do it.

“We have a good working relationship,” says Goering. “We ask them questions; we’ve toured their research plots and their labs. I think they appreciate the funding and support we’ve given them, and we appreciate the results they’ve achieve for us.”

Resources:

Video about the UNL Soybean Breeding Program: https://mediahub.unl.edu/media/14153

For more information about the Nebraska breeding and genetics program, visit the UNL Agronomy and Horticulture Department website: https://agronomy.unl.edu

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.