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March 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Consider a jigsaw puzzle. Hundreds, even thousands of pieces scattered about. Imagine how difficult it would be with no picture or directions to assemble the tangled mess. Biochemists face this dilemma constantly, and sometimes even they need a little guidance.
A group of scientists, including those from the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology at MU, completed a major biochemistry puzzle with the publication of the soybean genome sequence. Gary Stacey, MU professor of plant science and associate director of the center, spearheaded the idea five years ago. After completing preliminary research, the genome sequencing began in 2007, and the final result was introduced at a meeting for the International Congress of Legume Genetics and Genomics in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in December 2008. The sequence was published in Nature magazine in January 2010.
A genome is an organism’s complete package of hereditary information. Using the information inside the soybean genome, scientists can control it to benefit society and the agricultural community. The genome provides information to help scientists create more food and healthier food. For example, using soybean oil can lead to better trans fat quality in fried favorites because soybean oil reduces high cholesterol and obesity. Scientists are also using the genome to develop resistance to certain fungal diseases and environmental conditions, such as drought.
“The genome is the parts list,” Stacey says. “You can think of the father who gets the kid’s toy on Christmas Eve, and he has to put the toy together by Christmas morning. If all you are given is the parts list, and you are not given the directions in how to put the train together, it is a challenge to take all the individual parts and make it into a train.” Knowing the genome sequence helps complete the big picture. Soybeans oil is the No. 1 edible oil used in the U.S., and the majority of soybean meal in America goes into animal feed. The protein-packed legume is also used in producing diesel. This is especially useful in arctic weather when diesel becomes too thick and does not function effectively.
Another collaborator on the published paper, Jay Thelen, MU associate professor of biochemistry, says the industry can now begin to make hypotheses on improving soybean oil content. “Being able to map genes to certain traits that people have been trying to qualify will be easier now that the genome is complete,” he says. “It will make (biochemists’) lives a lot easier.”