In two years, you'll be able to buy non-hydrogenated soybean oil for the first time — that means no trans fats. And by 2009, you'll be able to buy soybean oil that will rival olive oil for its monounsaturated fats.

Improving soybean oil quality is a top priority of both industry and Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists such as biologist Rae Ritchie and her colleague, geneticist Niels Nielsen. Both are in the ARS Crop Production and Pest Control Research Unit at West Lafayette, Ind.

Capitalizing on the technology unleashed by the human genome project, the legume industry, funded by farmers, has formed the U.S. Legume Crop Genomics Initiative. One new genetic tool is called TILLING — for Targeting Induced Local Lesions in Genomes. This tool is making it possible to reap many of the benefits of genetic engineering without the disadvantages, real or perceived.

Among the first benefits from Ritchie and Nielsen's work with TILLING will be heart-healthy soybean oil and higher-protein soybeans. Hypoallergenic legumes should follow closely after. Since 2002, Ritchie and Nielsen have been creating special TILLING lines of soybeans for breeders. They make them from the Williams 82 soybean variety because it's the standard for soybean genome mapping.

These lines come from seeds with induced mutations that are revealed by a bulge or lesion that occurs at the site of a mismatch between a mutant strand of DNA and a normal strand. The plants grown from them can then be tested to see which gene functions have been changed by a particular mutation, helping breeders trace genes back to their functions.

For the allergen studies, Nielsen works with ARS molecular biologist Eliot Herman at St. Louis, Mo., and Rick Helm at Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute/Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center in Little Rock.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.