Kristin Bilyeu has been researching soybean seed composition since 2003. Before the fall of 2013, her research, though, strictly dealt with soybean issues in the United States. When she was asked to join a team of researchers from several different institutions to form the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Soybean Value Chain Research, her focus shifted to Africa and an effort to develop a low-processing variety of a soybean known as Jenguma.
“It was a steep learning curve for me because I hadn’t worked in any kind of international developmental setting before but I was looking for that, so the opportunity came at just the right time for me,” said Bilyeu, who serves as an adjunct associate professor in the Division of Plant Sciences as well as a research molecular biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.
The Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL), a five-year program scheduled to run through 2018, is the only one of its kind dedicated to soybean research for development funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. MU’s primary partners in SIL are the University of Illinois (the lead institution) and Mississippi State University.
It is one of more than 20 U.S.-university-led innovation labs sponsored by Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative with a focus on female smallholder farmers who account for most of the agricultural labor in a majority of Sub-Saharan African countries.
“There is a soybean revolution going right now because of all the benefits of soy,” said Kerry Clark, a research associate in the Division of Applied Social Sciences who is a part of the MU team involved with SIL. “The idea behind the Soybean Innovation Lab is for the smallholders and farmers in Africa not get left out of that revolution.”
Making a breakthrough
After several rounds of breeding work with a U.S.-adapted, low-processing variety and the popular Ghanaian soybean variety of Jenguma, Bilyeu and her team of fellow CAFNR researchers — including technician Christi Cole and postdoctoral fellow Hyun Jo — have recently developed and identified five lines of low-processing soybeans targeted for adaptation in northern Ghana. The new lines are expected to make it much easier for Ghanaians to remove or neutralize the anti-nutritional parts of the plant before human and animal consumption.
“I think going into the project we really didn’t understand how to take soybeans that were adapted to the U.S. and transfer traits that we had a good grasp on and make those work with soybeans that would grow well in the environments in Africa,” Bilyeu said.
None of the soybeans grown in the U.S., where the crops were first cultivated after being brought from East Asia approximately 250 years ago, have the right traits that would allow them to respond like Jenguma, which translates to “stay and wait for me.” Many African varieties have a special quality that allows them to thrive in the short days and long nights that come with being located near the equator.
Bilyeu and her team began their work with a non-shattering variety of Jenguma (the pods of wild soybean plants split open and fling the mature seed) by the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), in Nyankpala in northern Ghana.
Through their research, it was determined that the desired low-processing characteristics could be achieved by the reduction of one variant gene (Kunitz trypsin inhibitor, or KTI) and the elimination of another (lectin). Using a technique called back crossing, Bilyeu and her team started with a donor with those two genes to cross-pollinate them. Then with the molecular markers of those genes in hand, they would take the seeds from the cross-pollination and plant them. Those plants would grow, make flowers and then would be crossed back to Jenguma.
“Each time we did that we were hoping to get more of the qualities of Jenguma, but to carry along the two genes from the original donor,” Bilyeu said. “We feel like now we have lines that do look like Jenguma in general. They’ll grow like they should there and they’ll be stable for the traits.”
The back crossing process took place in Bilyeu’s laboratory in Mumford Hall (for molecular work), at the South Farm Research Center (for field work) and through Costa Rica Seeds, a company located in Upala, Costa Rica, that could provide back crosses during the winter months, given its similar latitude as Ghana.
Examining ‘genetic architecture’
After creating several varieties, the seeds that would contain the five successful low-processing lines were sent to Ghana in July where they were planted by Carrie Miranda, a doctoral student in plant sciences who is being co-advised by Bilyeu and Andrew Scaboo, assistant research professor of plant sciences and SIL team member. Miranda has been stationed at SARI, under the guidance of senior research scientist Nicholas Denwar, since June as a U.S. Borlaug Fellow in Global Food Security graduate research grant program. She will return to the U.S. in mid-December.
In her role, Miranda has opened new testing fields, established plots, hired workers, sorted seeds and watched over the lines in five locations spread over three cities. One of her locations is a four-hour drive from Nyankpala. She was “over the moon” when the five low-processing lines were first identified.
“From my time here I really understand how difficult the challenge of helping farmers become successful actually is,” Miranda said via email. “My research is only a very small answer in a large pool of questions and then there is the huge hurdle of having it applied.
“Improving agriculture here is a daunting, at times seemingly hopeless, endeavor yet the small victories along the way keep you going: talking to farmers and seeing them excited about your research, seeing the farmers understand the importance of changing their practices, and lastly, of course, seeing the results you hope for in your fields.”
“She’s like a tour de force at pulling off the management,” Peter Goldsmith, the overall principal investigator of SIL from the University of Illinois, said of Miranda. “She’s basically a soybean farmer. The crop looks beautiful. The experiments are fully intact. It’s working beautifully, and she just keeps persevering and keeping her enthusiasm.”
Miranda’s career path changed its projection after she finished her master’s degree in biochemistry at San Diego State University in 2014. She always had been interested in plant science as a way to play a role in helping alleviate world hunger, but eventually saw plant breeding as a perfect way to combine her knowledge of molecular biology with new research in plant genetics that could only be applied in the field.
“I was extremely persistent that I have an aspect of my dissertation that involved international research,” Miranda said. “Kristin was the one adviser who really encouraged that.”
“She came to a realization that she wanted to work on food security as she matured as a student and scholar,” Bilyeu said. “She came in with no background with plant science and a willingness to learn and to work and this desire to essentially help humanity and I think that’s taken her a long way because she’s a good synthesizer of information.”
Miranda’s doctoral thesis focuses on how to gain a better understanding of the “genetic architecture” — in Bilyeu’s words — and know what genes it takes to make an African-adapted variety of soybean. Miranda, who hopes to one day start a private seed company that specializes in new varieties in developing countries, will return to Ghana in June of 2017 to repeat her experiment for a second growing season.
“We’re hopeful that that will play out in the future so that we can do everything more efficiently,” Bilyeu said of Miranda’s thesis.
Bilyeu and her colleagues also hope to be able to implement the new lines in what is known as a closed loop poultry system by making arrangements with local farmers to exclusively feed the new low-processing lines of soybean to their chickens, over the concern that the new seeds will look just like the original Jenguma variety.
“The idea of a closed loop is that you never let go of the identity of the seed, so that you don’t get an unknown,” Bilyeu said. “If you have a specialty trait you want to be able to capture the value in that. If you’re competing with something that you can’t distinguish it from, then it’s lost essentially. It has to be completely separated or you have to be able to identify it as different.”
Click the video above for a recap of the Soybean Innovation Lab’s recent kick-off event in Ghana. Footage of Carrie Miranda, a doctoral student in plant sciences, talking to local farmers and smallholders, those who run small farms that rely on family labor, can be found at the 3-minute mark.
A new threshold
In August, Clark helped spearhead an eight-day workshop in Tamale for a group of blacksmiths throughout Ghana to teach them to build threshers for the local farmers and smallholders, those who run small farms that rely on family labor. The workshop was conducted jointly by the Soybean Innovation Lab and Catholic Relief Services.
At the end of the workshop, the blacksmiths had created three threshers using local materials and resources: two powered by engines and one by bicycle. The threshers were then distributed to three districts in northern Ghana.
“Our hope is that by producing them locally, they’ll also be fixed locally and maintained locally so they won’t become rusty relics out in the field somewhere,” Clark said.
Clark will return to Ghana in March to revisit with the blacksmiths and see what impact the threshers have had in terms of saving those who use them time and energy. In addition to soybeans, the threshers can also be used for “any crop other than corn,” Clark said.
A small group of the SIL team, including Goldsmith, went to Ghana last month to conduct a kick-off event for the approaching harvest season in November and a soy food bazaar. The festivities included a thresher demonstration.
Clark, who helped get working gloves donated to farmers in Ghana by Midwestern glove manufacturers in 2015, also helped lead the efforts to distribute 1,200 soybean success kits to villages in Mozambique in 2014 and 2015 and in Ghana in 2015 and 2016. The first round of kits included a Jenguma variety of soybean seeds and phosphorus-rich fertilizer (a chemical element sorely lacking in most African soils).
After finding out that a majority of farmers and smallholders were not rotating their soybean crops with corn, the second kit contained corn seed and fertilizer for the corn with the suggestion that they grow the corn in an adjacent field and then rotate them with the soybeans.
Bilyeu helped Clark and others distribute the kits when she visited Ghana in September 2015. She also went to survey the situation in Mozambique in April 2016.
The differences in Ghana’s familiarity with soybeans and Mozambique’s was stark. Whereas Ghanaians had started to implement soybean products into their diet in spite of not knowing the best growing practices for it, people living in remote villages in Mozambique asked the SIL team how to make the crop into foods “but they were still eager to learn,” Clark said. Bilyeu noted that the soybean plants that she saw in Mozambique were of an outstanding quality “so the potential there was really good.”
While in Ghana for the first seed success kit distribution, Clark met Gabriel Abdulai, who initially volunteered to help make the kits. When Clark came down with a sickness, Abdulai helped ensure that her work with distributing the kits would stay on time. He later shared with her some research papers that he had written on his own about the technological programs in Ghanaian agriculture. When she returned to MU, Clark sent him a Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) study guide and encouraged him to apply for his M.S. in engineering.
A year later Abdulai was accepted into the bioengineering program at MU. After seeing Abdulai’s winning design for locally made threshers, SIL hired him to lead the soybean thresher training in August. He currently is refining his thresher design and testing prototypes in the ag engineering shop.
“His dream is to bring small-scale mechanization to Ghana, a country that currently relies on hand hoeing and hand planting and harvesting for the majority of its food supply,” Clark says of Abdulai. “I believe that he is the kind of innovative person that Africa needs to reach levels of production that will ensure food security and agricultural resiliency into the future.”