Improving Perennial Crops with Genomics

This is the twelfth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Genomics: A Potential Panacea for the Perennial Problem by Kendra A. McClure, Jason Sawler, Kyle M. Gardner, Daniel Money, and Sean Myles

Compared to annuals, a small but significant portion of our food comes from perennial crop plants. “Approximately one eighth of the world’s total food-producing surface area is dedicated to perennials,” and while that may seem relatively small, there is a good chance that some of your favorite things to eat or drink are perennial crops (apples, bananas, coffee, citrus, sugar cane, coconut, avocados, olives, grapes, cherries, almonds…just to name a few). However, making improvements to and introducing new cultivars of perennial crops is considerably more challenging compared to annual crops simply due to the nature of perennials. This puts perennial crops at greater risk to threats like pests and diseases, climate change, soil degradation, and water and land shortages. Advances in genomics, “the collection and use of DNA sequence information,” could change this.

Because breeding efforts to improve perennial crops is so challenging, “only a small number of elite varieties become popular, and the amount of genetic diversity represented by commercially successful cultivars is therefore often low.” This suggests that there is incredible potential for improvement in these crops, as long as major hurdles can be overcome. Following is a list of some of those hurdles:

  • Time – Most perennial crops have “extended juvenile phases,” meaning they won’t produce fruit for as much as ten years, considerably delaying evaluation of the final product.
  • Space – Perennial crops, especially trees, are large compared to annual crops, so the area required for evaluation is extensive.
  • Infrastructure – “Many perennials require trellis systems, extensive land preparation, and substantial costs for specialized equipment and skilled horticultural labor.”
  • Complex Evaluations – Automated assessments are “either unavailable or poorly developed,” so evaluations that include “size, shape, color, firmness, texture, aroma, sugars, tannins, and acidity” require “tasting panels” to ensure that the final product “satisfies consumer demands.” This process is expensive, and it differs depending on whether the crop will be consumed fresh or processed.
  • Vegetative Propagation – “Many perennials suffer from severe inbreeding depression when selfed,” so cultivars are maintained through vegetative propagation. This is a plus, because it means that the fruits of perennial crops are reliably uniform, so growers and consumers know what to expect year after year. However, this also means that while pests and pathogens evolve, the crops do not, making them more susceptible to such threats. Additionally, the “long histories” of certain cultivars “discourages [growers] from undergoing the risk of trying recently developed cultivars.”
  • Consumer Preferences – “Consumers often exhibit an irrational reverence for ancient or heirloom varieties,” despite the fact that the development of new varieties can result in crops that are higher yielding, resistant to pests and diseases, tastier, more nutritious, more suitable for storage, and require fewer chemical inputs. This obsession with traditional varieties leaves a “tremendous amount of untapped genetic potential for the improvement of perennial crops.”
"Modern avocado breeding still depends heavily on open-pollination because of the difficulty associated with making controlled crosses." (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

“Modern avocado breeding still depends heavily on open-pollination because of the difficulty associated with making controlled crosses.” (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Apart from issues of social and cultural preference, the challenge of breeding perennial crops comes down to time and money. Advances in genomics can help offset both of these things. Using DNA-based predictions, a plant’s phenotype can be determined at the seed or seedling stage. Genomics techniques can also be “used to reduce the generation time thereby enabling combinations of desirable traits to be combined on a timescale that is more similar to annual crops.” Below are summaries of specific areas discussed in the paper for using genomics in perennial crop breeding programs:

  • Reduction of Generation Time – This can be done using transgenic technology in ways that do not result in transgenic (GMO) cultivars. One method uses virus-induced gene silencing, in which a host plant is infected with “a virus that is genetically modified to carry a host gene;” the host plant then “attacks itself and uses its own endogenous system to silence the expression of one of its own genes.” Early flowering in apples has been induced after seedlings were inoculated with apple latent spherical virus that expresses a flowering gene derived from Arabidopsis thaliana.
  • Genetic Modification – Advances in genomics have brought us transgenic technology, and several commercial crops have been genetically modified using this technology. Most of them are annuals, but one perennial in particular, SunUp papaya, has been a major success. Its resistance to ringspot virus rescued the papaya industry from a devastating pathogen that “almost completely destroyed the industry in Hawaii.” Consumer disapproval, however, poses a major obstacle to commercial production of genetically modified organisms, and unless this changes, “their widespread use is unlikely.”
  • Marker-Assisted Selection – This is the “primary use of genomics in breeding.” The time between initial plant crosses and the introduction of a new cultivar can be dramatically shortened when genetic markers are used to determine the phenotypes of adult plants at the seedling stage. This technology is also useful when crossing domesticated plants with wild relatives, since genetic markers can be used to determine when desired traits are present in the offspring.
  • Ancestry Selection – After crosses with wild relatives, offspring may “perform poorly because wild germplasm often harbors numerous traits that negatively affect performance.” To overcome this, the offspring is crossed with cultivated plants until undesirable traits are eliminated. This is called backcrossing. Using marker-assisted selection, breeders can “select a small number of offspring in each generation that carry both the desired trait from the wild and the most cultivated ancestry.”
  • Genomic Selection – The success of marker-assisted selection is greatest when used for traits that are controlled by one or a few genes. However, many traits involve a complex set of genes. Genomic selection is a new technique that “uses dense, genome-wide marker data to predict phenotypes and screen offspring.” It is “especially useful for predicting complex traits controlled by many small-effect genes.” Genomic selection is in its infancy, so there are kinks to work out, but it is a promising technology for perennial crop breeding efforts.

The use of genomics will not replace every aspect of traditional perennial crop breeding and “should be viewed as a potential supplement…rather than a substitute.” Geneticists and plant breeders are encouraged to work together to develop and implement these technologies in a concerted effort to improve the crop plants that help feed the world.

"Despite the remarkable phenotypic and genotypic diversity in bananas," the Cavendish banana is responsible for the "vast majority" of banana production. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

“Despite the remarkable phenotypic and genotypic diversity in bananas,” the Cavendish banana is responsible for the “vast majority” of banana production. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

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Tales of Weedy Waterhemp and Weedy Rice

This is the eighth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Population Genetics and Origin of the Native North American Agricultural Weed Waterhemp (Amaranthus tuberculatus; Amarantheaceae) by Katherine E. Waselkov and Kenneth M. Olsen

Weeds are “the single greatest threat to agricultural productivity worldwide, costing an estimated $33 billion per year in the United States alone.” Understanding the origins, population structures, and genetic compositions of agricultural weeds will not only help us better mitigate current weed problems but may also help prevent the development of future weed species.

In the introduction, the authors present three modes of weed origination: 1. De-domestication (“domesticated species becoming feral”) 2. Hybridization of domesticated species with related wild species 3. Expansion of wild plants into agricultural ecosystems “through plasticity, adaptation, or exaptation [a shift in function of a particular trait].” In this study, the authors focused on the third mode – the wild-to-weed pathway – claiming that it receives “less attention by evolutionary biologists, even though all weeds without close crop relatives must have followed this pathway to agricultural invasion, and even though this type of weed species is the most common.”  Due to the dearth of research, there are several questions yet to be fully addressed: Does invasion require evolutionary changes in the plant and/or changes in agricultural practices? What is more common, single or multiple wild sources? What are the morphological, physiological, and ecological traits that might “predispose a wild species to expand into agricultural habitats?”

To help answer these questions, the authors turned to waterhemp (Amaranthus tuberculatus), a weed that, since first invading agricultural land in the 1950’s, has “become a major problem for corn and soybean farmers in Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois.” Waterhemp is native to the midwestern United States, where it can be found growing along riverbanks and in floodplains. It is a small seeded, dioecious (“obligately outcrossing”), wind-pollinated, annual plant with fruits that can be either dehiscent or indehiscent. Herbicide resistance has been detected in A. tuberculatus for at least six classes of herbicides, making it a difficult weed to control.

There is evidence that A. tuberculatus was previously in the process of diverging into two species, an eastern one and a western one, geographically separated by the Mississippi River. However, “human disturbance brought the taxa back into contact, and possibly gave rise to the agriculturally invasive strain through admixture.” Using population genetic data, the authors set out to determine if the present-day species would show evidence of a past divergence in progress prior to the 20th century. They also hypothesized that “the agricultural weed originated through hybridization between the two diverged lineages.”

Waterhemp, Amaranthus tuberculatus (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Waterhemp, Amaranthus tuberculatus (photo credit: www.eol.org)

After genotyping 38 populations from across the species range, the authors confirmed that A. tuberculatus was indeed diverging into two species. Today, the western variety (var. rudis) has expanded eastward into the territory of the eastern variety (var. tuberculatus), extending as far as Indiana. Its expansion appears to be facilitated by becoming an agricultural weed. Data did not confirm the hypothesis that the weedy strain was a hybridized version of the two varieties, but instead mainly consists of the western variety, suggesting that “admixture is not a pre-requisite for weediness in A. tuberculatus.”

Further investigation revealed that the western variety may have already been “genetically and phenotypically suited to agricultural environments,” and thus did not require “genetic changes to be successful” as an agricultural weed. “Finer-scale geographic sampling” and deeper genetic analyses may help determine whatever genetic basis there might be for this unfortunate situation.

The Evolution of Flowering Strategies in US Weedy Rice by Carrie S. Thurber, Michael Reagon, Kenneth M. Olsen, Yulin Jia, and Ana L. Caicedo

This paper looks at an agricultural weed that originated from the de-domestication of a crop plant (one of the three modes of weed origination stated above). A weed that belongs to the same species as the crop it invades is referred to as a conspecific weed, and weedy rice is “one of the most devastating conspecific weeds in the United States.”  Oryza sativa is the main species of rice cultivated in the US, and most varieties are from the group tropical japonica. The two main varieties of weedy rice are straw hull (SH) and black-hull awned (BHA), which originated from cultivated varieties in the groups indica and aus respectively. Because weedy rice is so closely related to cultivated rice, it is incredibly difficult to manage, and there is concern that cross-pollination will result in the movement of traits between groups. For this reason, the authors of this study investigated flowering times of each group in order to assess the “extent to which flowering time differed between these groups” and to determine “whether genes affecting flowering time variation in rice could play a role in the evolution of weedy rice in the US.”

Rice, Oryza sativa (illustration credit: wikimedia commons)

Rice, Oryza sativa (illustration credit: wikimedia commons)

Crop plants have typically been selected for “uniformity in flowering time to facilitate harvesting.” The flowering time of weed species helps determine their effectiveness in competing with crop plants. Flowering earlier than crop plants results in weed seeds dispersing before harvest, “thereby escaping into the seed bank.” Flowering simultaneously with crop plants can “decrease conspicuousness, and seed may be unwittingly collected and replanted” along with crop seeds. Simultaneous flowering of weeds and crops is of special concern when the two are closely related since there is potential for gene transfer, especially when the crop varieties are herbicide resistant as can be the case with rice (“60-65% of cultivated rice in [the southern US] is reported to be herbicide resistant”).

For this study, researchers observed phenotypes and gene regions of a broad collection of Oryza, including cultivated varieties, weed species, and ancestors of weed and cultivated species. They found that “SH weeds tend to flower significantly earlier than the local tropical japonica crop, while BHA weeds tend to flower concurrently or later than the crop.” When the weeds were compared with their cultivated progenitors, it was apparent that both weed varieties had “undergone rapid evolution,” with SH weeds flowering earlier and BHA weeds flowering later than their respective relatives. These findings were consistent with analyses of gene regions which found functional Hd1 alleles in SH weeds (resulting in day length sensitivity and early flowering under short-day conditions) and non-functional Hd1 alleles in BHA weeds (“consistent with loss of day-length sensitivity and later flowering under short-day conditions”). However, the authors determined that there is more to investigate concerning the genetic basis of the evolution of flowering time in weedy rice.

In light of these results, hybridization is of little concern between cultivated rice and SH weeds. BHA weeds, on the other hand, “have a greater probability of hybridization with the crop based on flowering time and Hd1 haplotype.” The authors “predict that hybrids between weedy and cultivated rice are likely to be increasingly seen in US rice fields,” which, considering the current level of herbicide resistant rice in cultivation, is quite disconcerting.

Your Food Is a Polyploid

This is the seventh in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Doubling Down on Genomes: Polyploidy and Crop Plants by Simon Renny-Byfield and Jonathan F. Wendel

This is another fascinating but dense article about genetics. The major theme, as the title suggests, is polyploidy and its role in crop domestication and future crop improvements – a sub-theme being that by studying polyploidy in crop plants, we can gain insights into polyploidy generally as it relates to non-crop plants. Polyploidy – or whole genome duplication – is “where an organism possesses more than a diploid complement of chromosomes.” Typically, chromosomes come in sets of two, one set from each parent. Organisms with this type of an arrangement are called diploids. Polyploids are organisms with more than two sets of chromosomes. In general terms, this can occur as a result of two species hybridizing (interspecific hybridization), which is called allopolyploidy, or it can occur as a result of spontaneous genome doubling in a single species, which is called autopolyploidy. This article deals mainly with allopolyploid as polyploidy in crop plants is largely a result of hybridization.

Much of what we know about polyploidy has been discovered relatively recently during what is referred to as the “genomics era.” Traditionally, identifying polyploids was done by examining the number of chromosomes in a cell. Today, technological advances such as next generation sequencing have brought new insights into polyploidy and allowed us to identify evidence of it in organisms that cannot be observed simply by counting chromosomes. Plants that are now considered diploids went through periods of whole genome duplication in the distant past; however, due to genome downsizing and other events, they present themselves as diploids. This historical polyploidy is called paleopolyploidy. Evidence now suggests that all seed plants and flowering plants (angiosperms) are “rightly considered to have a paleopolyploidy ancestry.”

As I did with past articles that were very genetics heavy, I will use the bullet point method to list some of the main things that I learned from the article rather than offering a full review. As with any article that I review, my goal is to present the information in a digestible manner for as wide of an audience as possible without misrepresenting or oversimplifying the science and the research. This seems to be one of the main struggles faced by all who write about science for a general audience – a topic to be explored another time, perhaps.

  • The recent discovery that the genomes of all seed plants and angiosperms have “experienced multiple rounds of whole genome duplication” is “one of the most significant realizations to emerge from the genomics era.” In the past decade, “the ubiquity and scope of whole genome duplication has truly come to light,” and we no longer need to ask, “Is this species a polyploid?,” but rather “how many rounds of whole genome duplication occurred in the ancestral lineage of this taxon, and when was the most recent polyploidy?”
  • Recently formed polyploids are not stable and experience a period of “genomic shock.” They must “overcome an initial fitness cost associated with genomic [deviations].” These “large-scale perturbations [events that alter the function of a biological system] have the potential to add novel genetic material to the genome, potentially useful in the context of domestication and selection.”
  • Plants that appear to be diploids are actually paleopolyploids that have undergone a process called diploidization “in which the genome of a polyploidy is pruned, often by poorly understood mechanisms, such that it returns to a diploid-like condition.” Over time, duplicated genes are removed, DNA is eliminated, chromosome numbers decrease, etc. The organism then presents itself as a diploid, however traces of its polyploidy past remain detectable.
  • It has long been understood that hybrids can exhibit what is known as hybrid vigor (or heterosis) wherein they express traits that are superior to their parents, such as faster growth and higher yields. This is the reason plant breeders make such crosses. Debate continues concerning the “precise causes of heterosis.” Current research is focused on the epigenetic variability that is “induced by hybridization and polyploidy.” Epigenetics, which concerns variation that is not a result of alterations to DNA, is an emerging field that can be advanced through the study of polyploidy. Additionally, “the utilization of epigenetic diversity within crop species will provide a novel avenue for crop improvement in the coming years.”
  • While polyploids have great potential to increase our understanding of genomics and greatly improve “targeted breeding efforts,” they are historically difficult to study mainly due to the large size of their genomes compared to diploids. “Larger genomes are more expensive to sequence and require greater computational finesse.” To date, “only a single example of a ‘complete’ polyploidy genome exists, that of autotetraploid potato.” The authors “anticipate that these methodological challenges will soon be overcome by advances in genome sequencing technologies,” and along with “other powerful approaches,” continued insights into polyploidy will be attained.
Upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is the most widely cultivated species of cotton in the United States. It is an allopolyploid that produces fibers that are "considerably longer, stronger, and whiter than are possible to obtain from any diploid." (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Upland cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is the most widely cultivated species of cotton in the United States. It is an allopolyploid, and it produces fibers that are “considerably longer, stronger, and whiter than are possible to obtain from any diploid.” (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Carrots and Strawberries, Genetics and Phylogenetics

This is the fifth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

As expected, some of the articles in this issue get into pretty deep discussions about genetics and phylogenetics. Advancements in sequencing and analyzing DNA have not only led to better understanding of genes and their functions but have also given us greater insight into how species are related and their proper place on the phylogenetic tree.  While I have some background in these things and can follow along at a basic level, I certainly don’t feel confident in authoritatively summarizing such findings . I also question whether or not a high level discussion of phylogenetics makes for an interesting and engaging blog post. Plant systematics geeks are aggressively nodding “yes”; other readers’ eyes have glazed over by this point.

I am certainly not arguing that this is not important stuff. When a species we have become familiar with is suddenly given a new scientific name, it is not too annoy those of us who are trying to learn the names of things, rather it is because something novel has been discovered about the way living things are organized, about their life history – the way they came to be.  We should be celebrating advancements that allow us to look back over the millions of years of life on earth and see how various species emerged, evolved, disappeared, were replaced, and ultimately arrived at what we view today. And we should be humbled to know that these present forms are not the climax, that we are simply getting a glimpse in the evolutionary trajectory of the organisms around us. Perhaps it will prompt us to protect them, understanding that every scrap of biodiversity is important and worth conserving. After all, who are we to decide how the story goes?

The sixth and seventh articles in “Speaking of Food” are about carrots and strawberries respectively. Discussion about the genetics and phylogenetics of these plants dominates the articles, with the application being that we can improve these crops by better understanding their genetics, and we can gain insights into plant evolution by better understanding their phylogenetics.  Rather than give you a thorough overview of each of these articles (for reasons stated above), I am offering you bullet points of a few of the things that I learned while reading them.

Phylogenomics of the Carrot Genus (Daucus, Apiaceae) by Carlos Arbizu, Holly Ruess, Douglas Senalik, Philipp W. Simon, and David M. Spooner

  • The domesticated carrot (Daucus carota subsp. sativus) is “the most notable cultivated member of Apiaceae [a family consisting of 455 genera and over 3,500 species] in terms of economic importance and nutrition.”
  • Carrots are our primary source of vitamin A (due to high levels of alpha and beta carotenes), “accounting for about half of dietary intake.”
  • Wild carrot species can be used to improve the domesticated carrot by providing genes that will help with pest and disease resistance, yield increases, better nutrient value, etc.
  • “The taxonomy of D. carota is particularly problematical. It undergoes widespread hybridization experimentally and spontaneously with commercial varieties and other named subspecies.”
  • The researchers, upon examining more than half of the known Daucus species and 9 species that are very closely related, identified several Daucus spp. that “may be easily incorporated in carrot breeding programs.”
  • This study determined “misidentifications in germplasm collections” and highlighted “the difficulty of defining subspecies of D. carota.”
Flowers of Daucus carota (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Flowers of Daucus carota (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Fragaria: A Genus with Deep Historical Roots and Ripe for Evolutionary and Ecological Insights by Aaron Liston, Richard Cronn, and Tia-Lynn Ashman

  •  Fresh strawberries are fifth on the list of fresh fruit consumption in the United States.
  • “Resistance to a Fragaria-specific powdery mildew has been demonstrated in F. x ananassa [domesticated strawberry] transformed with a peach locus, and the cultivation of such transgenic plants could reduce pesticide usage in strawberry.” Commercial production awaits, though, “due to public resistance, a lack of industry support, and concerns over gene flow to the wild species of Fragaria.”
  • “The modern cultivated strawberry, Fragaria x ananassa, originated in the 18th century in Europe from hybridization between two species imported from North and South America. The parental species, F. virginiana and F. chiloensis, also hybridize naturally in northwestern North America, but there is no evidence that they were ever cultivated by the native Americans in this area.”
  • The stolons of strawberry plants can be used as dental floss!? So said Antoine Nicolas Duchesne in his 1766 book about strawberries. I guess I’ll have to read his account to get more insight into this interesting detail.
  • F. x ananassa has flowers that are self-compatible, but it is “derived from the hybridization of two wild species that show gender dimorphism,” which is common in the genus. For this reason, Fragaria, is “proving to be an exceptional model system for understanding the sexual system and sex chromosome evolution.”
  • Fragaria species occur across a broad range of temperate habitats and elevations from sea level sand dunes to moist, productive meadows to high, dry, mountain summits.” They are adapted to a wide variety of environmental conditions. “This variation represents a potential source of genetic variation for climatic tolerance, disease/pest resistance, and yield-associated traits.”
  • The Fragaria genus, like virtually all genera of flowering plants, includes polyploid species. Researchers conclude that Fragaria is an “ideal system for exploring relationships between ploidy formation, ploidy level, and the coordination of transcriptomic control.” They also believe that continued studies of “ecological and evolutionary genomics in Fragaria has the potential to provide further insights into hybridization.”
  • Finally, the researchers advise that the “familiarity of strawberries provides an opportunity to engage and educate the public about botanical research.”
Broadpetal Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana supsp. platypetala (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Broadpetal Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana supsp. platypetala (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

An Underutilized Crop and the Cousins of a Popular One

This is the fourth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Genetic Diversity in Carthamus tinctorius (Asteraceae; Safflower), An Underutilized Oilseed Crop by Stephanie A. Pearl and John M. Burke

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent about 4,500 years ago. It was originally desired for its flowers which were used in dye making. Commercial production of safflower began in North America in the 1950’s, where it is now mainly grown for its seeds which are used to produce oil for human consumption and are a main ingredient in bird seed mixes. Despite this, it is categorized as an “underutilized crop,” one “whose genetic potential has not been fully realized.” With increased interest in food security and feeding a growing population, researchers are turning to new and underutilized crops in order to increase the “availability of a diverse assemblage of crop species.”

A major step in improving a crop plant is understanding the genetic diversity that is available within its gene pool. With this aim in mind, researchers observed a “broad cross section of the safflower gene pool” by examining the DNA of a “worldwide sampling of diversity from the USDA germplasm collection [134 accessions consisting of 96 from the Old World and 38 from the New World]”, 48 lines from two major commercial safflower breeding programs in North America, and 8 wild collected safflower individuals.

Safflower, Carthamus tinctorius (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Safflower, Carthamus tinctorius (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Researchers found that the cultivated safflower varieties had a significant reduction in genetic diversity compared to the wild safflower plants. They also noted that the 96 Old World accessions could be grouped into “four clusters that corresponded to four different geographic regions that presumably represent somewhat distinct breeding pools.” They found that the wild safflowers “shared the greatest similarity with the Iran-Afghanistan-Turkey cluster” from the Old World group of accessions, a finding that “is consistent with safflower’s presumed Near Eastern center of origin.”

The researchers determined that there may be “agronomically favorable alleles present in wild safflowers,” and that “expanded efforts to access wild genetic diversity would facilitate the continued improvement of safflower.” Safflower is an important but underused oilseed crop that is adapted to dry climates; studies like this one that can lead to further crop improvements may help bring it out of niche production and into more widespread use.

The Wild Side of a Major Crop: Soybean’s Perennial Cousins from Down Under by Sue Sherman-Broyles, Aureliano Bombarely, Adrian F. Powell, Jane L. Doyle, Ashley N. Egan, Jeremy E. Coate, and Jeff J. Doyle

Soybean production is a major money maker in the United States ($43 billion total revenue in 2012); corn is the only crop that tops it. Soybean oil has myriad uses from food to feedstock and from pharmaceuticals to biofuel. As much as 57% of the world’s seed oil comes from soybeans produced in the United States. Hence, soybean (Glycine max and its wild progenitor, G. soja) is a well researched crop. Most research has been focused on the two annual species in the subgenus Soja; “less well known are the perennial wild relatives of soybean native to Australia, a diverse and interesting group that has been the focus of research in several laboratories.”

Given the agricultural importance of soybean and the increasing demands that will be placed on this crop as population rises, it is imperative that improvements continue to be made. Exploring soybean’s “extended gene pool,” including both its annual “brother” and its perennial “cousins,” will aid in making these improvements.

Soybean's wild annual relative, Glycine soja (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Soybean’s wild annual relative, Glycine soja (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Perennial soybeans in the subgenus Glycine include around 30 species. They are adapted to a wide variety of habitats “including desert, sandy beaches, rocky outcrops, and monsoonal, temperate, and subtropical forests.” They are of particular interest to researchers because several of them are allopolyploids, meaning that they have more than the usual two sets of chromosomes and that the additional sets of chromosomes were derived from different species. The authors state that “the distributional differences between diploids and independently formed polyploids [in the subgenus Glycine] suggests underlying ecological, physiological, and molecular differences related to genome doubling and has led to the development of the group as a model for studying allopolyploidy.” The group is also worth studying because they demonstrate resistance to various soybean pathogens and are adapted to a variety of environmental conditions.

By continuing to work with soybean’s perennial cousins to gain a better understanding of “polyploidy and legume evolution,” the authors hope to apply their research to achieve increases in soybean yields. Past research suggests that the study of polyploidy in the perennial soybeans could lead to crop improvements in areas such as photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, flowering time, and disease resistance.

Glycine tomentella - one of soybean's perennial cousins (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Glycine tomentella – one of soybean’s perennial cousins (photo credit: www.eol.org)