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Universities use high-tech tools of the trade to develop soybean varieties

Researcher's technological tools include genome markers, robots and drones.

A woman wearing a yellow vest and blue jeans flies a drone above a soybean research test plot.
Manogna Adapa, a master's degree student in the North Dakota State University Department of Agricultural and Biosystem Engineering uses a drone to collect soybean data.
Contributed / North Dakota State University
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Technology is revolutionizing soybean plant breeding programs by expediting variety development.

At North Dakota State University in Fargo, for example, Carrie Miranda, the assistant professor who leads the university’s plant breeding program, is using high-tech tools, including genome markers, robots and drones to develop soybean varieties with improved yields, resistance to diseases and the traits consumers desire.

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Yield enhancement and disease resistance are important to farmers who grow soybeans for commercial use, such as livestock feed rations and nonfood and industrial products.

Meanwhile, developing food-grade soybeans with certain traits is desired by companies that process food-grade soybeans into products consumed by humans.

Miranda took over the reins of the 36-year-old soybean breeding program at NDSU two years ago. She believes her academic and career background, which includes biology and computer expertise, helped her land the job.

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“The North Dakota Soybean Council began in 1985, and one year later, started the soybean breeding program at NDSU,” said Stephanie Sinner, NDSC executive director. “This program is the foundation of the soybean industry, bringing North Dakota to one of the top soybean producing states in the nation.

A woman wearing a white cap, green shirt and blue jeans kneels in soybean field.
Carrie Miranda is a North Dakota State University assistant professor and soybean breeder.
Contributed / North Dakota Soybean Growers Association

“Today, with her strong background in molecular biology, genetics, and bioinformatics, we’re grateful to have Dr. Carrie Miranda’s expertise implementing new technologies to advance the industry, and profitability, for North Dakota soybean farmers,” Sinner said.

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Miranda earned a bachelor's degree in biology at Cleveland University, a master’s degree in molecular biology from San Diego State University and a doctorate in plant breeding from the University of Missouri. While she was at the University of Missouri, Miranda was awarded a Borlaug Research Fellowship and, with funding from the Soybean Innovation Lab and the University of Missouri, she conducted field trials in northern Ghana to determine which genetic mechanisms were controlling maturity in tropical soybeans.

After graduation from the University of Missouri, Miranda worked for Puris Foods in Oskaloosa, Iowa, then returned to the University of Missouri where she was employed as a U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service postdoctoral fellow. Her work focused on using bioinformatic tools — which uses computer technology to manage biological data — to identify and validate candidate genes.

The soybean program at NDSU is supported by the North Dakota Soybean Council, and also receives funding from the United Soybean Board and the North Central Soybean Research Program, which is made up of 13 states, including North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Silhouette of dried soybean plants.
Soybean yields have accelerated over the years due to research focusing on selecting the best "parent" plants to breed.
Liz Harder / Grand Vale Creative LLC

The NCSRP’s emphasis is, through a collaborative effort of the states’ research programs, to improve and protect soybean yields through genetics and agronomic practices.

“I am really focused on using modern breeding techniques,” Miranda said.

While traditional plant breeding programs involve choosing parents to make crosses or to pollinate that are based on yield data which has been collected over the course of five crop seasons, technology can expedite that process. It also helps the breeders to more accurately choose the plant lines they want to advance.

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Utilizing technology to develop varieties that are high yielding and disease resistant helps fill the soybean “pipeline” more quickly and efficiently, said Aaron Lorenz, an assistant professor and soybean breeder at University of Minnesota in St. Paul

Instead of depending on data gleaned from physically walking through 10,000 plants and then narrowing that to 1,000 that will be tested to determine how they yield, Miranda and her research team can use algorithms to choose parent plants based on genomic sequence data.

“You build a model in your computer software, and the computer helps you pick the best parents,” she said. “It’s not perfect, and the breeders still need to use their own thinking and knowledge, but it might make you notice some potential parents that you wouldn’t have seen before.

“It’s so nice to have a tool that can help you discern some of that data,” Miranda said.

A woman wearing a yellow vest and blue jeans uses a remote control on a robot in a soybean field.
Manogna Adapa, a master's degree student in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystem Engineering uses a robot to collect soybean data.
Contributed / North Dakota State University

The ability to more quickly analyze data also is beneficial because Miranda sends seeds to Chile and Puerto Rico in the winter, where they are planted, harvested and then re-planted and harvested before being returned to NDSU for the summer breeding program.

“I make the decisions for what I think should be advanced, quickly package it and send it back to the winter nursery,” she said.

Using technology helps Miranda to more quickly make the decisions about which lines to advance, she said.

The combination of access to a winter nursery and quicker analysis is beneficial to the soybean breeding program.

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“It’s always about time and it’s always about space,” Miranda said.

Another advantage of using technology is that genetic tools can be used to accurately test for plants’ resistance to diseases such as soybean cyst nematodes, which are microscopic roundworms that infect soybean roots.

“Previously, you would have to advance the line, and only focus on yield, and then when you potentially have the highest yielding lines, you would test for disease resistance,” Miranda said. “So then, you’re just hoping this line has disease resistance.”

However, by utilizing technology Miranda can determine which lines are resistant to diseases and advance those.

“Computer programs also can help me pick lines for new environments,” Miranda said. Instead of solely relying on data that is collected in Fargo, she can use information generated by her computer to help determine how the lines will perform in other parts of the state, such as northern and western North Dakota where farmers typically plant soybean varieties developed at NDSU.

“I am really focusing on utilizing modern breeding techniques and genotyping and drone imagery to make better selections for high yielding soybeans,” Miranda said.

A man wearing a maroon shirt kneels in  a soybean field.
Aaron Lorenz is a University of Minnesota assistant professor and soybean breeder.
Contributed / University of Minnesota

Meanwhile, using DNA markers can identify varieties that have desirable genes. Food-grade soybeans have unique compositions, depending on whether they are used in soy milk, tofu or for plant-based food market Lorenz, said.

Simultaneous Near-Infrared Spectroscopy or NRIS is another technological tool that soybean breeders can use to determine traits such as oil and protein content and fatty acids, which helps them to choose which varieties are most suitable for their intended markets, he said.

Miranda believes the technological tools improve the NDSU soybean breeding program and ultimately, benefit farmers and the companies who buy the soybeans they grow.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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