October 09, 2006

New federal grant fuels soybean research at SIUC

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Crop researchers across the nation and around the world aiming to produce new soybean varieties with special functions can do the job faster and more cheaply with a little help from a new center at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Khalid Meksem, a biotechnologist in the College of Agricultural Science's Center for Excellence in Soybean Research, Teaching and Outreach, has received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Research Initiative to set up a center where "mutant" plants are bred and screened for desirable genetic changes.

Meksem and his colleagues will store both the genetic profiles and the mutant seeds for use by other scientists here and abroad. They also will post their own research results on the World Wide Web. In addition, the center will employ freshman, graduate and post-doctoral students, training them in the hot new field of plant genomics.

"This funding will put SIUC on the map of genome research again," Meksem said.

A new technique called TILLING, an acronym that stands for "targeting induced local lesions in genomes," makes the center's work possible. The lesions, created in soybean seeds by soaking them in a chemical that can rearrange the seeds' DNA, indicate mutation has taken place.

While conventional breeders have used chemicals to create mutations for decades, they did not have today's high-powered scanning and imaging machines that can home in on, then pinpoint, the exact location of a particular mutation on a particular gene.

Using such technology, scientists can figure out exactly what the targeted genes do, making it that much easier to help breeders select for particular traits when producing new varieties the old-fashioned way.

TILLING outperforms other "reverse genetics" approaches in several areas, Meksem said. Scientists can decide exactly what region of DNA they want to look at; the technique produces a large number of genetic variations that do not revert to the original forms; it can work with small genes as well as large ones; it can detect variations that occur naturally as well as those induced chemically; and a breeder doesn't have to grow an actual plant in order for scientists to get this information.

Over the next three years, Meksem and his colleagues will produce 6,000 mutant plants from each of two soybean cultivars: Williams82, described by Meksem as the standard for this kind of research, and Forrest, a variety much used in the nation's southerly growing regions. Meksem anticipates no difficulty in achieving this goal.

"We have done almost half the work already," he noted.

Because he and members of his lab have been working with TILLING for the past three years, they have the equipment they need for the various steps the procedure involves and the know-how to use it expertly. They've also fine-tuned the procedure itself, making it much more efficient and reliable in producing enough mutants to work with without compromising the seeds' germination rate.

Based on experience, Meksem anticipates the TILLING center will provide soybean and legume researchers with 15 to 30 variants of each gene within the soybean genome over the grant period.

Data collected from project-related research will go up on the Web as soon as possible, Meksem said. Even before winning the federal grant, he and his colleagues had created a site, www.soybeantilling.org, to help other researchers. It contains information on SIUC's TILLING project, links to Web tools used in the technique and a database that allows researchers to search the lab's collection of mutants either by gene or physical appearance (the phenotype).

While the project's main thrust tilts toward research, it has an educational component, Meksem said. It will employ not just graduate and post-doctoral students but University freshmen as well. Noting that SIUC has a "strong culture" of undergraduate research through programs run by the provost's office and the Office of Research Development and Administration, the project will use student employment as a means not only to introduce the younger ones to scientific research but to train the older ones how to guide and teach effectively.

"The importance and value of mentoring undergrads will be a top priority in our research labs," he said.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.


New federal grant fuels soybean research at SIUC

The long and short of it —
These soybeans came from
the same “parent,” but they
don’t look much alike.
Khalid Meksem, a
biotechnologist at Southern
Illinois University Carbondale,
works with such “mutant”
plants, hoping to breed new
lines with helpful new traits.
Download Photo Here