For millennia, people have grown soybeans and turned them into useful products like oil and livestock feed. But when it comes to understanding why a soybean grows, blooms or produces like it does, researchers are left with unanswered questions.

University of Georgia professor Wayne Parrott aims to find the answers with a three-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation and a jumping gene in rice found by a UGA colleague.

“I'm convinced that soybeans would be so much more useful and flexible if we knew what genes we need to be working with,” said Parrott, a crop and soil sciences professor in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The soybean's genome was sequenced, or mapped, earlier this year. Now Parrott and his colleagues from the universities of Nebraska, Missouri-Columbia and Minnesota are taking soybean's genetic map and translating it so that soybean breeders can use it to produce a better bean.

Parrott's counterparts are using radiation. He's using a jumping gene that UGA plant biology professor Sue Wessler found in rice. The gene her lab discovered is one of only a few with the ability to cut themselves out and move to another location in the genome, altering it, Parrott said.

She shared the technology with Parrott, whose lab will insert the jumping rice gene into soybean plants. When something changes in a plant with the added jumping gene — such as how fast it flowers — they will then search the plant genetically. When they find the jumping gene — presumably in a new location in the genome — they can identify the modified gene there and, in this example, know what caused the plant to bloom faster.

The more genes they identify using the jumping gene technique, the more they'll know about the soybean and what they can do to improve it. The soybean has a few issues that could stand modifying, Parrott said.

On grocery store shelves, soybeans may seem like the perfect plant. It can be made into tofu and synthetic meat products. However, the bean's protein is not balanced to the 21 amino acids humans need for a healthy diet. In addition, soybean oil contains trans fats after it's processed.

On the agricultural side, an improved soybean variety would allow farmers to plant a crop that produces more soybeans using the same amount of land. And with soybean plants that are disease and insect resistant, farmers wouldn't have to apply as many money-draining pesticides.

Farmers could also grow varieties that produce more oil or more protein.

“Genome sequencing and gene discovery is starting to open a new, exciting era for us,” Parrott said.

It's a good time for soybeans. Since 1982, the U.S. has had a 15 percent increase in total soybean production.

“Acreage-wise, soybeans are among the top three crops in the United States,” Parrott said. “It's the No. 1 source of vegetable oil and vegetable protein. In that regard, it's the most important of the crops.”

Soybeans are used for adhesives, alternative fuels, disinfectants, plastics, salad dressings, particleboard, candy, cookies and swine feed, to name a few. “It just boggles the mind that it lends itself to so many different uses,” Parrott said. “It's even in furniture care products.”