Building a better soybean

Faculty members such as M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences (front), are making agriculture more profitable in the commonwealth by building a soybean that can be grown in Virginia and digested easily by nonruminants.

Faculty members such as M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences (front), are making agriculture more profitable in the commonwealth by building a soybean that can be grown in Virginia and digested easily by nonruminants.

Soybeans are one of Virginia’s top crops, ranking sixth out of the commonwealth’s top 10 agricultural commodities.

The vast majority of the crop is processed as feed for farm animals — including cows, pigs, and chickens — which are also top products for the state.

Soybeans contain high levels of phytic acid, which stores phosphorous. When animals ingest soybeans, the phytate is broken down in the gut.

While ruminants such as cows can break down soybeans with ease, nonruminants like pigs and chickens have difficulty breaking down the high-phytate content in a traditional soybean. In addition, the waste produced by animals who consume soybeans is also high in phosphorous, which has far-reaching ramifications for bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay that are overburdened with phosphorous runoff.

M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, is one of several researchers in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences helping to produce new soybean varieties with lower levels of phytate, which in turn is more easily digested and produces less phosphorous.

The new plants can be lucrative for the state but are also easy on non-ruminant stomachs due to low phytic acid.

Saghai-Maroof identifies soybeans with desirable genetic traits using cutting-edge technology such as the mass spectrometer — a machine that measures metabolites that go beyond the DNA footprint of a plant — and gives researchers the ability to see metabolic processes at work in the genetic development of an organism.

“Virginia Tech is making a soybean specifically for Virginia livestock that will be environmentally friendly and will be utilized by the animals in the most efficient way,” Saghai-Maroof said.

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