Making major improvements to one of the nation’s high-value food crops — from the lab, to the field, to the market — is the goal of a project awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to scientists at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The $9.28 million grant will fund the work of a multi-disciplinary team representing a total of 18 institutions that will create new disease management technologies to improve the sustainability of soybean production. (Read an earlier report on research planned by the University of Georgia by clicking here).

The team, which includes Extension specialists and economists as well as biologists, will establish relationships with soybean farmers and crop production and research consultants to ensure the technologies are meeting their needs and to measure potential economic value.

The research activities will focus specifically on oomycete pathogens of soybeans including Phytophthora sojae, a deadly, soilborne plant pathogen that causes root and stem rot in soybeans. Soybean production in the United States totals approximately 3.3 billion bushels annually, which has a value of almost $32 billion. However, damage to soybean crops caused by root and stem rot cause an estimated $300 million in annual yield loss for U.S. farmers.

“Soybeans are a very important crop for the United States,” explained Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Professor Brett Tyler, who serves as the project’s principal investigator. “It is used in the foods we eat, the oil we cook with, and in animal feed. Soybean oil is also used extensively in biodiesel production. The main goal of this project is to improve the sustainability of crop production by mitigating several major diseases. This will benefit small farmers as well as larger commercial producers, and will strengthen our nation’s food security system by keeping food prices down.”

Over the past 10 years, information about the biology and genomics of P. sojaeand other oomycetes (fungal-like microbes) has increased dramatically, due in large part to scientific advances and discoveries made by Tyler and his collaborators. The central aim of this project is to translate these discoveries into new disease management technologies that can be easily integrated with current farming practices to improve sustainable soybean production.