WSU researchers working to build a better soybean

Modified soybeans, right. proved more productive than normal soybeans during a Washington State University study, which could mean improved productivity and less fertilizer use for farmers. WSU researcher Mechthild Tegeder says the next step is to see how the plants fare in the field instead of a greenhouse setting.

Soybeans with an improved nitrogen flow could lead to increased plant productivity and less use of fertilizer, says a Washington State University researcher.

“We’re trying to create nitrogen-use efficiency,” said Mechthild Tegeder, professor of plant molecular physiology in Pullman, Wash. “Plants take nitrogen up more efficiently or, after uptake, they utilize it more efficiently.”

Tegeder recently published a paper in Current Biology about modifying soybean plants in a greenhouse. The modified plants fix twice as much nitrogen from the atmosphere compared to natural soybeans, grow larger and produce up to 36 percent more seeds.

“The farmer would need to fertilize less and still get higher or the same amount of yield,” Tegeder said.

The plants are genetically modified, introducing a gene from a bean into a soybean.

“I wouldn’t have any concerns with this approach at all,” she said.

But she is aware of the general discussion and concern about GMOs.

“I think at one point, one has to make a decision: What can help us in the future?” she said. “But I also believe not every approach is the same. If we can produce higher yield or plants that produce yield wih higher nitrogen-use efficiency so we have less input of nitrogen fertilizer and potentially protect the environment from increased runoff or leaching, to me, I think this has a huge benefit.”

Tegeder is studying a similar strategy for peas. The same idea could be applied to “a broad range” of other crops, including wheat, grasses and canola, she said.

Researchers have pursued better ways to improve nitrogen fixation for decades, said Jeff Rumney, director of research for the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.

“Lots of strategies have been tried, but it looks like the work that’s being done here could really make a significant difference in understanding this system and enhancing it in the field,” Rumney said.

Tegeder grew the modified plants in greenhouses. The next step is to try them in actual field conditions.

“We need to see if they continue to outperform the control plants in the field,” she said. “Having said that, I think this strategy will be highly successful. We don’t see any limiting factor, at least right now.”

Tegeder will apply for grant funding for field research. She’d like to work with breeders and seed companies to apply her findings.

“Really, the next step is to prove this technology in the field,” Rumney said. “Getting it in the field will make a big difference for producers.”

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