WASHINGTON, March 26, 2014-- A USDA plant scientist told a group of House staffers in Washington this week that his research team is making slow but steady progress on its search for drought resistant soybean varieties.

Thomas Carter Jr., a geneticist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Soybean Unit, located on the North Carolina State campus in Raleigh, said his team has been studying variations in crops grown in dry areas around the world.  

Carter was one of the presenters at a seminar of the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research (C-FAR) on Capitol Hill. For the last 10 years he’s led a team of seven scientists in a search for drought-tolerant soybean cultivars using germplasm from Asia as parental stock. The group recently expanded to include 20 specialists on drought and other environmental stresses.

Biotechnology approaches to drought resistance haven’t worked as well as they have for disease, herbicide and pest resistance, Carter explained, which is why researchers are looking to existing varieties.  He said over several decades, USDA has collected a portion of the more than 20,000 types of soybeans in the world. “Now we’re taking these things out of the gene bank and putting them in the sand hills of North Carolina for research,” he said. USDA and N.C. State run the Sandhills Research Station, where the arid soil provides a good medium for studying soybean drought resistance.

He said his research discovered a “slow wilting” trait in some soybeans that gives the plant an extra week of life in dry conditions and can increase yields by five to seven bushels per acre.

In all, 10 slow-wilting soybean varieties have been discovered, Carter said. USDA is now releasing a slow-wilting variety that has multiple stress resistances, which “companies can use as stock to grow their own varieties.” The United Soybean Board and USDA are funding research to build on this work with the help of university partners. Carter noted that Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta have all shown interest in his research and invested in its growth.

“I think this is an example that can be repeated in other crops,” he said. “There is a lot of potential that hasn’t been exploited yet.”

NC-FAR Executive Director Tom Van Arsdall told Hill staffers at the meeting that Carter’s work “would not be possible without public funding” through ARS, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and other agencies. “We need the investments in science so we can have these means to an end.”

Carter emphasized the long-term nature of his work. “We need stability to do this kind of work,” he said. “We can hit a lot of dead ends, so it takes time, but it works.”


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