Chinese Scientists Develop Gene-edited Soybean that Can Grow in Warmer Climates

Chinese agricultural scientists are using gene-editing tools to create soybean mutants that can adapt to warmer climates in low-altitude regions, in a bid to increase production of the crop in southern China.

Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences have knocked out two key genes that regulate soybean flowering to create mutants that “may have enormous yield potential for the tropics”, according to a research paper published in Plant Biotechnology Journal in late June.

The new technology will “contribute to soybean breeding and regional adaptability” in the country’s south, where soybean crops often face problems including premature flowering, a shortened growth period and reduced production.

The discovery may provide a shot in the arm for China’s soybean production, which has become a battleground in the year-long trade dispute between Beijing and Washington. Soybeans are the main source of China’s cooking oil and an important source of animal feed.

Hou Wensheng, a member of the research team at the academy’s Institute of Crop Science, said the three-year project aimed to improve conditions for nurturing, planting and producing soybeans in regions near the equator, including southern China.

In China, soybeans are mainly grown in the northeastern, central and eastern provinces.

The soybean mutants created by the team flowered later, had improved height and an increased number of pods, providing a basis to breed varieties that would grow well in low-altitude areas, state news agency Xinhua reported on Friday.

But Hou acknowledged that the research results “cannot solve the problems” of the huge gap between demand for soybeans in China and domestic production. “It’s only a new technology and [we’re] still a long way from breeding new soybean varieties,” he said.

China produces about 16 million tonnes of soybeans annually, while there is domestic demand for 110 million tonnes per year, Han Changfu, the agriculture minister, said earlier.

Soybeans are mainly grown in the northeastern, central and eastern parts of China. (Image Credit: Xinhua)
Soybeans are mainly grown in the northeastern, central and eastern parts of China. (Image Credit: Xinhua)

In 2017, China imported 95 million tonnes of soybean – or nearly 90 per cent of its domestic demand. Some 32.8 million tonnes of soybean were imported from the US that year, or about a third of total imports.

But with China and the US locked in a trade war since last July, soybean imports from America almost halved in 2018, to 16.6 million tonnes, while imports from Brazil surged 30 per cent to 66 million tonnes, according to Chinese customs data.

However, after Washington and Beijing agreed to a truce on tariffs in December, US government data showed that China bought about 13 million tonnes of US soybean, Bloomberg reported.

On Friday, a commentary by Taoran Notes, a social media account affiliated with official newspaper Economic Daily , said Beijing would not buy American agriculture products if the US “flip-flops” again in future trade negotiations.

Hou said it was difficult for China to resolve its domestic shortage of soybeans. “We don’t have enough cultivated land to plant soybeans and the domestic demand is huge,” he said.

Beijing has said it would try to find ways to support domestic growers, including expanding the amount of land used for soybean crops this year.

Speaking in February, Wu Hongyao, a senior official with the agriculture ministry, said other measures included accelerating research on high-yield crops and improving management of soybean production to “rejuvenate” the industry.

Written by Zhenhua Lu in South China Morning Post. Read original article here