Experts find lost genes in wild soybean

SINGAPORE - Researchers have found genes in wild varieties of soybean that make them resistant to certain diseases and hope to use them in cultivated species of soy to make them more hardy.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Mon 15 Nov 2010, 3:35 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 3:44 AM

They may also have found genes that make wild varieties resistant to drought and saline soil — traits that cultivated soybean will need because the amount of arable land is shrinking around the world.

“(These traits) enable them to survive in suboptimal conditions and are important for utilising marginal land,” said Lam Hon-ming, deputy director of the State Key Laboratory of Agrobiotechnology at the Chinese University in Hong Kong.

“We can extract these genes and use them in varieties cultivated in suboptimal and marginal land,” Lam said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Lam and his colleagues in Hong Kong and China sequenced the genomes of 17 wild and 14 cultivated varieties of soybean, and uncovered many genes in the wild varieties that were either absent or different in the cultivated species.

Their findings were published in Nature Genetics on Monday.

Soybean has been cultivated in China for almost 5,000 years and in the United States since 1765, and artificial selection of traits over time has resulted in a loss of many genes.

“However, the wild varieties have preserved these traits to survive in harsh conditions and they are important now with China’s arable land and water resources shrinking,” Lam said.

With a population set to grow to 1.44 billion by 2030 from 1.33 billion in 2009, China is eager to find ways to increase food production. The task, however, is made difficult because of insufficient water and arable land.

It needs to feed 22 percent of the world’s population but has only 7 percent of the world’s arable land. Its water resources are meagre at just 25 percent of the per capita world average. And a quarter of its water is so polluted it is unfit even for industrial use.

“Good arable land will not increase. We have to look for marginal land and develop stress tolerance genes. There will be a higher chance of getting these resources in the wild,” Lam said.

The study underlined the importance of preserving the habitat of wild crops, Lam said.

“Habitats for wild soybean are shrinking and that is alarming. People should protect the habitat for wild crops or biodiversity will shrink,” he said.

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