By Virginia Baldwin Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

July 23, 2001


The United Soybean Board is spending more than $2 million a year to develop a better bean.

Though the money comes from farmers, the project is defining "better" from the view of consumers.

"We've gone to the end users, the food processors and feed mills, and tried to identify the characteristics they would like to see changed," said Steve Muench, the director of research for the program.

Soybeans are separated into two main products: oil used by food processors and meal used in animal feed.

These consumers said they wanted oil containing less saturated fat and meal with an amino-acid balance that would help animals grow.

"The changes we're making in the oil are mainly for the domestic market," said John Bercherer, the chief executive of the Soybean Board, which is based in St. Louis.

Medical researchers believe that monounsaturated fat, such as that found in olive oil, is healthier for human hearts than saturated fat, such as that found in beef tallow, or even the polyunsaturated fat found in corn oil or safflower oil.

The changes in meal, on the other hand, "would have an impact worldwide," Bercherer said. "We would be able to create an opportunity for the U.S. farmer to differentiate our soybeans from the rest of the world on the basis of changes in the nutritional value."

Congress set up the Soybean Board in 1990 to allocate checkoff dues levied on the sale of every bushel of soybeans. The checkoff money goes for research and marketing.

Several other research projects are funded by the Soybean Board:

* Mapping the soybean genome. Knowing which genes control which traits and where they occur on a chromosome would be helpful in changing hereditary characteristics, whether the changes occur spontaneously, in conventional breeding or through genetic engineering.

* Finding soybean varieties that can tolerate drought and other stressful conditions.

* Developing high-yield varieties that resist the cyst nematode, a pesky worm that attacks soybeans.

* Pinpointing the microconditions -- for example, the soil type, the amount of water received, the soil and air temperature -- of a portion of a field and precisely choosing fertilizer or seed variety to match the conditions, a process known as precision agriculture.

The Soybean Board's search for a better bean uses the latest advances in genetics to find genes that would produce the traits for improved beans.

The group has no research facility, Bercherer said. It funds research in universities and coordinates with public agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agriculture departments.

It also collaborates with corporations.

Recently, Monsanto Co. donated the product of some of its genetic research to the Soybean Board: a library of BAC end sequences. BAC stands for bacterial artificial chromosome.

Scientists insert genetic material from another organism -- in this case, soybeans -- into a bacterium so they can reproduce, or clone, the material in the lab. Monsanto scientists determined the DNA sequence from each end of the piece of soybean DNA.

This allows scientists to see if the piece overlaps with sequences from other parts of the soybean genome and to fit that piece into a larger map.

"It is a tool that could be useful in trying to sequence the soybean genome," Bercherer said.

Besides the sequencing project, which is a huge undertaking, the BAC end sequences that Monsanto donated contain "markers that we could go in and mine for information that would assist us in our breeding programs," Becherer said. That is, the end sequences offer clues to the location of traits important to the development of better beans, in the lab and in the field.

"We've always done traditional research," Becherer said. "Now, we're doing biotech and traditional together. We're always looking for the best w ay to provide profit opportunities to our farmers."

Soybean research budget

The United Soybean Board gets $7 million a year from soybean sales for research. It administers grants to university researchers in the proportions:

Better bean initiative 32%
Soybean cyst nematode 15%
Gene mapping 15%
Drought tolerance or avoidance 10%
Precision agriculture 9%
Other areas 19%

Source: United Soybean Board