This story also appears in our University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Center Magazine. Stop by your local Research Center to pick up a copy! You can view the magazine online by clicking here: Road to Discovery.
The Fisher Delta Research Center soybean breeding team has gained national recognition for developing improved soybean varieties. The group releases three to five new varieties into the market every year – with a focus on higher yield, disease resistance, environmental stress tolerance and improved seed quality.
The team is led by Pengyin Chen, who came to the Fisher Delta Research Center after 15 years as a soybean breeding and genetics professor at the University of Arkansas. Chen joined the team in 2016, accepting the MU Division of Plant Sciences David M. Haggard Endowed Professorship of Soybean Breeding.
“Our overall focus is on variety development and germplasm enhancement,” Chen said. “We want to address the needs of our stakeholders. We want our producers to have the best varieties to plant in their fields.”
Chen’s work is funded, reviewed and promoted by the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and soy checkoff. Chen works with local producers in an attempt to research ways to improve the soybean crop for a variety of soil types and environments.
“We work with several local producers in the Missouri Bootheel region,” Chen said. “For them, yield is the No. 1 goal. We want to help them deal with their individual challenges to create the best soybean for their farm.”
To battle those challenges, Chen and the soybean team do years’ worth of variety development. Chen said the entire process, from crossing to releasing the varieties to the market, can take six to eight years. The process took 10 to 12 years in the past.
To breed a new variety, the team selects two parents that have complementary traits. For example, they will breed a parent with high yield potential and a parent with disease-resistance genes.
“We make the cross with the hope of combining the traits from both parents,” Chen said. “We then send the hybrids to winter nurseries in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico.”
The winter nurseries allow for fast-tracked advancement of the progeny. MU has a service arrangement with Hawaii, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico for soybean development. Basically, Chen sends instructions with the progeny and the nurseries send seeds of advanced generation back to the Center. The nurseries can propagate multiple generations in a shorter timeframe, resulting in a pure line quickly.
“The genes are segregated and recombined in the breeding process at these nurseries,” Chen said. “After two years, and four or five generations of breeding, pure lines will be derived for selection. We then select pure lines with the combined traits that we want.”
The next step in the process is yield testing to see how the newly bred lines perform. Chen plants the soybeans to see how well they do in a field setting.
“We have a lot of crosses being made and a lot of progenies being grown every year,” Chen said. “We’re hoping to find something that has the right combination of genes. The success rate isn’t very high. You have to use your resources well.
“It is challenging and is very much a numbers game. It’s a long and progressive process, too. There is certainly a little luck and art to it.”
For the lines that test well in the field, Chen then works to commercialize them and get the best ones on the marketplace.
“We work with several groups to get our varieties to the market for producers to utilize,” Chen said. “They also help us with promotion of our products. There is a lot to it in terms of technical support and licensing our soybeans. It’s a great network to work with.”
Chen replaced Grover Shannon as head of the soybean breeding team at the Fisher Delta Research Center after Shannon’s retirement. Shannon began his career at the Research Center in 1974. After stops at other locations, Shannon had been at Fisher Delta Research Center for the past 20 years. In total, Shannon worked with soybeans for 40 years. He’s released around 100 lines in his career.
Chen and Shannon had collaborated on several projects when Chen worked at the University of Arkansas. The duo met in the late 1980s, as Chen was finishing his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech.
Shannon has stuck around in an advisory role to help Chen with the transition to the soybean breeding team.
“It’s been a good transition,” Chen said. “Grover, of course, has been incredibly helpful to me, the team and the local producers. If we need any help he’s still available. He’s a great asset to the entire region.”
Chen has nearly 20 total projects in the works in collaboration with the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and United Soybean Board. He also has projects with the United States Department of Agriculture and a few regional soybean board studies.
Those research projects cover a variety of important traits including seed protein, oil and sugar content; numerous fatty acids; drought, flood and salt tolerance; and various other diseases and nematodes.
Chen works with several MU faculty as well, such as Andrew Scaboo, Henry Nguyen, Bing Stacey, Felix Fritschi and Melissa Mitchum.
“We have several great collaborators,” Chen said. “It’s exciting to be able to work with so many faculty who are working to improve our soybean varieties for the state.”