Minnesota Soybean Business

Serving double duty: Researcher address soybean issues while training future leaders

Research is all about finding answers and making a better future. The Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) supports research at the University of Minnesota to help address pressing issues in soybean production. That investment is yielding more than information.

MSR&PC invested checkoff funds in research conducted by Aaron Lorenz, U of M soybean breeder. Lorenz is working on breeding for soybean cyst nematode (SCN) and aphid resistance. Lorenz says researchers are also selecting varieties for phytophthora resistance, as well as other diseases such as white mold and brown stem rot.

Fight the resistance

SCN is a major soybean yield robber managed primarily through resistant varieties. One primary source of SCN resistance is a gene from a soybean accession called PI 88788, although that defense is becoming less effective on some SCN populations. There is another gene from a variety called Peking, which is also incorporated into few seed varieties as a source of SCN resistance.

“A longer-term goal is to develop more elite germplasm with novel sources of SCN resistance,” Lorenz says. “We do have some promising Peking-type lines in advanced stages of testing, in addition to other novel sources of resistance.”

Lorenz says the University of Minnesota has breeding lines in yield trials that have novel sources of SCN resistance. Researchers are hoping these lines will form the foundation of breeding material that can be used to respond to instances of resistance breakdown. They also have advanced varieties with Peking-type resistance. Lorenz says researchers are making a special effort to generate more Peking-type varieties adapted to Minnesota, so more farmers have the option of planting this source of resistance if it is needed on their farms.

“On the aphid front, we are striving to develop new varieties with stacked forms of aphid resistance,” he says. “These varieties would provide resistance to multiple aphid biotypes, making the varieties more resilient to aphid outbreaks.”

Typically, farmers have managed soybean aphid outbreaks by spraying insecticides when aphid numbers reach economic thresholds. However, aphids with resistance to insecticides have been discovered, and there are concerns over how insecticides impact beneficial pollinator species.

“Creating new varieties with robust aphid resistance bred into them will give farmers another tool in their integrated pest-management toolbox,” Lorenz says. “This is something seed companies have spent little effort on, and it’s something we can afford to do with our longer-range outlook.”

Lorenz says that while insecticides currently work for aphids, their ongoing effectiveness and availability remains an open question. Lorenz adds that several promising lines with stacked forms of aphid resistance are in their first year of yield trials

“As my dad told me when I was young, having a solution in the seed is always the preferred solution if we can get it,” Lorenz says.

Soybean edits

Checkoff-supported research at the University of Minnesota is also focusing on adapting gene editing tools to soybeans. Professor Robert Stupar is incorporating those technologies to develop novel and helpful traits for soybean growers.

“Our current efforts are mostly directed at identifying genes that can be mutated to derive useful traits,” Stupar says. “We use genetic engineering tools to develop the mutation and traits, but the resulting product does not contain a transgene and is therefore not a genetically modified organism (GMO) according to U.S. regulations.”

Stupar says the traits researchers are examining include seed composition and plant architecture. Seed composition efforts target the development of soybeans with reduced anti-nutritional components, which may make these beans better for feed and food uses. The plant architecture research is targeting branching traits, so researchers may be able to develop lines with greater yield potential and possibly a better canopy for reducing weed pressure.

Yield loss from Soybean Cyst Nematode can exceed 30 percent.

The gene editing approach uses a CRISPR/Cas engineering tool, which allows for precise alterations of specific DNA sequences. Stupar says the first generation of editing lines, targeting a reduction in some anti-nutritional seed components, entered a preliminary yield trial this year.

“It’s interesting because these materials are growing side by side with similar lines developed by Aaron Lorenz’s group, where they used traditional breeding methods to introgress these same traits,” Stupar says. “I think that will make a very interesting study for growers and regulators to see how these different lines, developed for the same traits using two different methods, will compare with one another.”

Stupar says there are several other gene editing traits in the research pipeline that aren’t yet ready for field evaluation.

Important yields

As important as the research results are to Minnesota farmers, Stupar and Lorenz also are helping train the next generation of scientists working in the agriculture industry. Students, including graduate and post-doctoral candidates, are involved in many checkoff-funded research projects.

“Training students may be the most important thing we do,” Lorenz says. “Our students and other scientists who pass through our programs go on to be leaders in agricultural research and development in a variety of sectors.”

Lorenz says about 75 percent of those student go to work in the ag industry, while others go into government, academic and other sectors.

“Your typical scientist working at a seed company helping to bring new and better seeds to the farm most likely received a degree or spent time in a program just like mine or my colleagues’ at some point early in their career,” Lorenz says. “The combination of hands-on research, classes, seminars, journal clubs and academic-related extracurricular activities is a rich and immersive experience that helps to create generation after generation of talented scientists working for agriculture.”

Cultivating the next generation of researchers is a top priority.

“To me, training students is our number one mission at the university,” Stupar says.

Stupar says he has been privileged to have advised 12 graduate students and 16 postdoctoral researchers over the past 13 years. Most of them have ended up at either large seed companies or smaller start-up seed companies. Others ended up in the public sector, including a couple of college professors and another who now runs a USDA lab. Stupar says his research program has employed more than 35 undergraduate workers over the years.

“For many of these students, this is their first real experience with scientific research, and we strive to make it a positive one,” Stupar says. “Interacting with our young scientists, and opening new doors to them, is probably the most gratifying part of this job.”


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