A man inspects crops in a field.

Saving soybeans from billions in losses by pathogens

October 09, 2020

A team of researchers led by Virginia Tech developed tools using genomic advances that pave the way to new diagnostic tools, disease-resistant soybeans, and managing dangerous pathogens.

Adopted from “Saving Soybeans,” in Retaking the Field Volume 5 by the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation. Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is a member of FedByScience, a project of the SoAR Foundation.

The total value of the U.S. soybean crop was $41 billion in 2016, according to the American Soybean Association.

However, the valuable crop is heavily impacted by root and stem rot diseases caused by oomycete pathogens, fungal-like microbes that cause highly destructive plant diseases and plague almost every type of row crop grown.

Oomycetes, which contain hundreds of species, along with the rest of the plant pathogens, are estimated to cost billions of dollars in crop losses annually. A particular type of oomycete, Phytophthora sojae, is one of the most disruptive pathogens in soybean fields across our nation.

The United States Department of Agriculture funded a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to combat oomycete diseases. Virginia Tech led the challenge in collaboration with 19 universities including Michigan State University, University of Georgia, Iowa State University, and others.

This consortium used genomic information to better understand the disease prevalence and to produce new tools to mitigate its impact. The consortium also estimated the economic impact of the disease and disseminated information and tools from the project to growers and other stakeholders.

A solution using genomic sequencing

More recently, new tools to decode oomycete genomes were recently reported by Virginia Tech’s David Haak and John McDowell. They proved that combining two generations of genomic sequencing technology has immense advantages.

“Our work is similar to counterespionage,”McDowell said. “We try to figure out the weapons that pathogens use and then turn those weapons against the pathogen or devise countermeasures.”

Using first-generation technology, it takes one-and-a-half years and around $2 million to sequence the P. capsici genome. By combining technologies, it takes just nine days, only costs $1,000, and can sequence 100,000 times more information in roughly 1.5 percent of the time.

Using these genomic advances opens the door to developing new diagnostic tools, identifying genes for breeding disease-resistant soybeans, and managing the pathogen. Preliminary estimates by agricultural economists suggest that these and other tools to fight oomycetes could generate billions of dollars in savings globally.

Further, leveraging these advances in technology improves the agricultural sector’s ability to produce enough food for a growing global population by ensuring the food and the inputs used to produce it aren’t lost to disease.

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