The Huntsville Times
By Budd McLaughlin
Times Business Editor
Jeremy Schmutz is lead author of study on soybean genetic makeup
A local researcher’s quest to "build a better soybean" has landed him in the most recent issue of the science journal Nature, published Thursday.
Jeremy Schmutz, a faculty investigator at the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology in Huntsville, is the lead author on a study involving the soybean’s genetic makeup.
"This is really exciting," he said. "This is a major publication for the institute and a landmark paper." HudsonAlpha was part of an 18-member team in the study that included the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute, the Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, Purdue University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The DOE, National Science Foundation, USDA and United Soybean Board supported the research.
"The USDA mostly funded the genetic mapping," Schmutz said. "The NSF groups worked on building research; the United Soybean Board also helped with the funding.
Schmutz was also on the team for the Human Genome Project, a 13-year effort started in 1990 to study human genetics, as well as the possible legal, social and ethical issues that may arise from the project. Coincidentally, the same lab equipment used in that project is also being used in the soybean project.
In the past, research on soybeans wouldn’t necessarily garner a lot of attention – especially to the extent of the Human Genome Project – but now the plant is growing in importance as a source of protein for people and livestock and fuel for vehicles.
"Soybeans have been my focus for about four years," said Schmutz. "Now I know more than I thought I would ever know (about soybeans.)"
Soybeans are the No. 2 crop in the United States (No. 1 is corn) – and a major crop in Madison County, too. By knowing its genetic code, researchers can help create a better plant, one resistant to disease, insects and drought while also helping the environment by helping to reduce the contaminants in livestock and poultry waste.
Schmutz said that the soybean effort was the largest plant project done to date at the DOE Joint Genome Institute.
"It also happens to be the largest plant that’s ever been sequenced by the whole genome shotgun strategy – where we break it apart and reassemble it like a huge puzzle," he said.
On the biodiesel fuel front, Schmutz said another key result from the project is finding out how to increase the yield or sizes of the soybean pods.
Currently, there isn’t enough oil produced by soybeans to justify its use to lessen dependence on fossil fuels.
"We’re kind of topped out at yields," Schmutz said. Which means there has to be a way to increase the size of the pods and the beans.
"You just can’t throw a switch to increase the pod size," he said. The project enables the scientists to develop a soybean with an oil increase of more than 40 percent.
"You can actually show this is going to have an economic impact. We want to make the soybean a better and more useful crop species."