A draft of the complete genome of the soya bean has been released on 8 December by the Joint Genome Institute and its partners. This may spur more research into this fascinating and useful plant.
It is not a secret that the soya bean (Glycine max) is a very useful plant indeed. It is widely used as a food crop for humans and food animals as it is rich in protein. It is also very useful as a source of oil, and as such, it is interesting as a base material for the production of biodiesel.
According to Nature, the sequencing was done by the JGI (Joint Genome Institute) of the US Department of Energy in Walnut Creek, California, in co-operation with other partners. It has taken three years and about 20 million USD to obtain the complete genome.
The genome of the soya plant is fascinating. Soy doubled 10 million or so years ago," says Dan Rokhsar of JGI, one of the project's leaders, "but if you look carefully, you can see at least two other doubling events." This means that each gene in the genome of the soy plant may have up to three very similar copies. This fact made many people doubt that the approach championed by Craig Venter of human genome project fame would work here.
In this approach, the genome is cut into fragments with a length of around 700 base pairs each. These fragments are separately sequenced, and then later put back together, much like a puzzle. Because of the similarities, there were fears that this would not be possible. Compare it with two very similar puzzles of which the pieces are mixed together, and which one then has to reconstruct.
Randy Shoemaker of the US Department of Agriculture in Iowa is a team leader on this project. he had predicted in 2000 that soya was too complex and that it would therefore never be sequenced. It seems that never only lasts about eight years, since this has now been done. It nicely shows the futility of the claim that science will "never" be able to do this or that. Never is a very long time indeed.
Another team leader, Gary Stacey of the University of Missouri in Columbia says that it actually all came together relatively easily. The sequence has been checked against soya genes that were already known, and they have found at least 98% of them in the sequenced genome.
It is hoped that biofuel designers and farmers will use the genome sequence to create soya plants to their own specifications. "Now we can identify all the genes involved in the oil synthesis in the seed," says Stacey. This should help to improve the production of oil. "Ideally you use no water, no fertilizer, and the lousiest soil possible," say Rokhsar.
It is also hoped that the genome sequence will help to reduce the time needed for the creation of a new soya variety from around 15 to 20 years to between five and seven years.