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USDA puts $5 million into grants for legume genomic research
November 23, 2005

The USDA recently announced up to $5 million in research funding for functional genomics and bioinformatics research on legume crops, available through the USDA National Research Initiative (NRI) Competitive Grants Program.

This announcement, a major accomplishment for the U.S. Legume Crops Genomics Initiative (LCGI), is the culmination of a four-year cooperative effort by the American Soybean Association and the American Alfalfa Alliance, National Dry Bean Council, Peanut Foundation, United Soybean Board and USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council.

Research on legume plants (Fabaceae) offers unique opportunities for basic gene and genomics studies to improve the nutrition, yield and disease-resistance of legume crops.  Half of the funding, $2.5 million, is dedicated to cross-legume genomics and another $2.5 million will go to plant genome tools, resources and bioinformatics with Fabaceae projects as the priority. This will provide more knowledge about the genomes of all the legumes, which will lead to the identification of genes with desirable characteristics that can be more easily transferred into legume plants through either biotechnology or traditional breeding methods.

"There is some research to suggest that a common bean like the kidney bean (Phaseolus) may be resistant to Asian soybean rust," says Joe Layton, a soybean producer from Vienna, Md, who serves on the board of the American Soybean Association and is current LCGI chair.  "This is just one example of how this project will help us better understand disease resistance in general."

Bioinformatics involves the use of computers to collect, analyze and store genomics information. "Functional genomics" refers to the function of each gene in the genome. Each "chunk" of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) codes for a different protein. Functional genomics figures out how more than a billion bases make genes that code for the proteins that build a plant.

The NRI funding is for making comparisons between two legume species. For example, the "common bean" appears to be resistant to Asian soybean rust. By comparing the soybean genome with the common bean gene, there will be very few differences, but one of those differences will be the reason that common the bean is resistant to rust and the soybean is not.

Gene markers will also be identified in this legume research. Marker-assisted breeding cuts down the time of developing new varieties. In addition, the project will help researchers better understand why some people are allergic to peanuts, while others are allergic to soybeans, yet no one seems to be allergic to peas.

Layton notes that the NRI program may yet be amended if overall funding is changed in the FY2006 Ag Appropriations Bill, and the American Soybean Association and other legume groups will be monitoring any modifications to the announced program. 




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