In recognition of the role soybeans play in United States agriculture, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research awarded a $942,000 Seeding Solutions Grant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, alongside scientific partners North Carolina State University and VIB known as the Institute for Biotechnology in Flanders, Belgium, to improve soybean crop resiliency.

The FFAR grant has been matched with funding from Benson Hill Biosystems, BASF, and VIB for a total $1.89 million award.

Soybean is a complete source of protein that contains all the essential amino acid for human nutrition, according to a news release from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Soy meal demand is projected to grow as protein demand increases worldwide. This surge in demand is happening concurrently with global climate shifts and more frequent extreme weather, including cold snaps and heat waves. Extreme weather is devastating to soybean crop yields and nutritional content, making it imperative that researchers determine how to increase soybean resiliency in response to climate change, the FFAR stated.

“Our research demonstrates that the response of soybean protein content to temperature varies among different genetic varieties,” said Anna Locke with USDA’s ARS, the principal investigator of this project. “Using deep learning techniques, we can analyze the effects of weather variability on soybean yield and protein production and work to develop high protein varieties that can withstand the stresses associated with changing climates.”

Locke and her team, including co-principal investigators of this project, Ive De Smet, of VIB, and Ross Sozzani, of North Carolina State, will use advanced machine learning algorithms to leverage the natural genetic diversity of plants and improve the sustainability, nutrition and flavor profiles of crops with greater precision than previously possible. Researchers will evaluate key temperature stress regulators, develop a test to rapidly screen soybean genotypes for temperature tolerance, and ultimately provide data that will allow crop breeders to identify new temperature tolerant soybean varieties more efficiently.

“We share FFAR’s vision to foster innovation and collaboration to address complex challenges in food production,” said Matthew Crisp, CEO and co-founder of Benson Hill Biosystems. “By applying data analytics and machine learning, we can gain insight into how to optimize the nutrition and yield of soybean simultaneously for different climatic conditions.”

“Soybean is a fundamentally important crop that plays a vital role in a healthy food system,” said Sally Rockey, Ph.D., FFAR’s executive director. “FFAR is excited to support this groundbreaking research that will increase our understanding of the relationship between a soybean plant’s genetic makeup, its environment, and its performance.”

FFAR’s Seeding Solutions Grant is an open call for bold ideas that address a pressing food and agriculture issues in one of the Foundation’s Challenge Areas. USDA ARS’s research supports FFAR’s 2018 Protein Challenge Area, currently the Next Generation Crops Challenge Area. FFAR’s work in this area supports the advancement of novel, nutritious, profitable, and resilient farm crops.

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