12 April 2010

It seems the humble soybean is not only a staple of the vegetarian diet; it’s also environmentally friendly, with UQ’s Professor Peter Gresshoff set to investigate the crop’s genetics in China.

Professor Gresshoff is the recipient of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences Senior International Scientist Professorial fellowship, and will travel to the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences to work with Professor Da Luo.

Soybean – which is used for biodiesel, human and animal food, as well as industrial products such as lipstick, emulsifiers, ink and paints – has the ability to convert nitrogen found naturally in the ground into ammonia, amino acids and proteins, helping it to grow without the need for nitrogen fertiliser such as Aquasol.

This results in nutrient-rich soybean seeds, often used in Asian diets and animal feed.

When the soybean crop dies, these natural nitrogen compounds are released into the soil and become available to other plants such as sorghum or sugarcane.

“Nitrogen fixation helps to lessen the energy and environmental impact of nitrogen fertiliser use,” Professor Gresshoff said.

“Such fertilisers are produced from fossil fuels, and result in ground and surface water pollution, as well as nitrous oxide pollution of the atmosphere.

“Nitrous oxides are 296 times as active as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

“Also, in recent years the price of industrial nitrogen fertilisers has increased dramatically due to rising fossil fuel costs.”

Soybean produces nitrogen compounds through a natural process called nodulation.

The crop develops a special root structure, or nodules, where the nitrogen from the air is converted by beneficial bacteria to form proteins.

Legumes, including soybean, are excellent components of protein-rich vegetarian diets.

Part of Professor Gresshoff’s biotechnology project will involve studying how soybean’s molecular genetics control this process.

He said while soybean was not widely grown in Australia because of the amount of water required, other legumes such as clovers, medic and lupin were prevalent.

As soybean is a “model legume”, results of this research could provide insight into other crops in the family.

“I will focus on soybean, as we have done a lot of critical work in Brisbane on this species, and it is an important global crop plant,” Professor Gresshoff said.

“China is the number one importer of soybean and is also the fourth largest soybean producer, but its yields are low.

“Biotechnology, microbiology and soil science can help as they did in Brazil over the last 20 years.”

Professor Gresshoff is director of UQ’s Australian Research Council Centre for Integrative Legume Research.

His collaborator, Professor Luo, is an eminent scientist and pioneer in the field of floral structure control.

The duo has already published in Plant Physiology on the genes in the model legume Lotus japonicus.

Professor Gresshoff will officially receive the fellowship from Professor Yongxiang Lu, President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, on April 26 in Shanghai.

He will work intermittently at Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences from June 2010, while maintaining his research group at UQ.

Media: Professor Gresshoff (07 3365 3550, p.gresshoff@uq.edu.au) or Penny Robinson at UQ Communications (07 3365 9723, penny.robinson@uq.edu.au).