Soybean Farmers Benefit from Nobel Prize-Winning Research

Last week, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier (Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany) and Jennifer A. Doudna (University of California, Berkeley, USA) for the development of a method for genome editing. CRISPR technology is currently in use by scientists worldwide to edit the DNA of plants, including soybean, with extremely high precision.  These “molecular scissors” are helping to develop new cultivars with higher yields, the ability to withstand pests and drought, and many other beneficial properties.  In fact, in a 2017 interview, Dr. Doudna said “The ability to make changes to the DNA of plant cells also opens up opportunities both in research and in solving problems in agriculture. That includes helping plants defend themselves against infection, drought, and other climate-change-related issues from a chemical perspective.”

Currently the soybean checkoff is supporting a significant number of research projects using this technology, including developing new research tools and understanding gene function, that will eventually result in improves soybean cultivars for U.S. farmers.  The United Soybean Board congratulates Drs. Charpentier and Doudna on their award, and thanks them for enabling our cutting-edge research.  A summary of current USB projects using these technologies is below.

Increasing Yield

  • Manipulating nodulation and nitrogen fixation efficiencies by editing the genes that control the interaction between soybean and nitrogen-fixing rhizobium (Purdue University)

Enhancing Protein and Oil Content

  • Developing two high protein soybean products, each employing CRISPR to edit a single gene that results in an increase in seed protein. The first product is expected to show a >10% protein increase with no impact on oil or yield, and the second a 25% increase in protein that be used as a meal ingredient for plant-based meat and aquaculture feed.  (Amphora)
  • Elucidation of DNA elements that regulate gene expression, improve protein/oil content, and are easily regenerated into plants (University of Georgia)
  • Increasing soybean oil yield through modification of fatty acid biosynthesis pathways. (University of Missouri)

Enhanced Nutritional Content

  • Improving soybean meal composition by gene editing and genetic modification to enhance the accumulation of methionine, an essential sulfur containing amino acid (University of Missouri)
  • Gene editing to knock out functional genes, and thus reduce or eliminate trypsin inhibitors – anti-nutritional factors that have been shown to reduce economic value (USDA/ARS, Columbia Missouri)
  • Using gene editing to improve the quality of soybean meal for food and feed applications by preventing soybeans from making bitter compounds that persist in meal (Benson Hill)
  • Modifying carbohydrate composition by decreasing indigestible carbohydrates and increasing sucrose utilizing raffinose synthase genes (Purdue University)

Pest, Drought, and Disease Resistance

  • Developing soybean lines with higher levels of resistance to soybean cyst nematode (University of Missouri)
  • Understanding the role of master regulatory genes responsible for protein content in soybean seeds (USDA/ARS)
  • Characterizing and utilizing new sources of drought tolerance for soybean improvement, especially wild soybean (Glycine soja) (Purdue University)
  • Dissecting the genetic and molecular basis of abiotic stress tolerance in the unique soybean cultivar Fiskeby III soybean for advancing breeding outcomes (University of Minnesota)

New Tools and Services

  • Establishing a fast, reliable, and highly efficient soybean transformation system as a service platform, to keep up with the technological advancement (especially gene-editing tools) and emerging needs of the soybean research community (Danforth Plant Science Center, Missouri)
  • Creating new genomic tools to empower soybean scientists to achieve precision editing and shorten the time needed to breed newly discovered traits into high yielding cultivars, by improving accessibility and efficiency of gene editing and CRISPR resources (Wisconsin Crop Improvement Center)
  • Expanding the utility of genome editing using CRISPR , by developing new methods, especially for modifying gene functionality (University of MN)
  • Deploying genetic approaches that will improve the efficiency of soybean plants to be regenerated after gene editing or transformation (University of GA)

Finally, in FY2021 USB is supporting the Coalition for the Responsible Use of Gene Editing in Agriculture, which has developed guidelines for the responsible use of gene editing in technology in agriculture, as well as conducting outreach and engagement on the benefits and limits of this technology.

Lisa M. Balbes
Lisa M. Balbes

Science Communications Manager


Lisa M. Balbes earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her undergraduate degrees in chemistry and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis. She spent several years as a computational chemist at Research Triangle Institute, conducting protein and small molecule modeling experiments in support of drug discovery. Since 1992, she has provided technical writing and editing services as Balbes Consultants, LLC, with clients including Washington University Medical School, Bausch and Lomb Surgical, SigmaAldrich, Stereotaxis, Pine Instrumentation, the US FDA, and many others.