Soybean South

 - TECHNOLOGY -

On The Cutting Edge Of Bean Biology


Worldwide SoyTechnologies a unique research center located in
DeWitt, Ark. owns one of the largest privately held germplasm banks
in the central United States.


From soy sausage to biodiesel, the many uses of soybeans seem to be limited only by our imagination. Plant science has developed thousands of varieties of soybeans to meet the increasingly diverse demand for soy products, but more varieties are needed every year.

Worldwide SoyTechnologies, part of the Hornbeck Agricultural Group in DeWitt, Ark., has produced dozens of top-performing soybean lines for the Southern market in recent years. The latest enhancements in technology and staff additions now allow this unique research center to produce even more top varieties and meet specific needs while delivering new lines to market one to two seasons faster.

To develop new varieties, scientists draw on genetic material or germplasm that is unencumbered by unwanted genetic material. Worldwide SoyTechnologies owns one of the largest privately held germplasm banks in the central United States. The bank includes preliminary and elite lines, thousands of strains in various stages of cultivar development and other strains that are saved in cold storage for specific uses.

SoyTechnologies has managed to cut a five-to-seven-growing-seasons’ timetable to four years, and the Hornbecks’ goal is to trim off another one to two growing seasons by using a technique called marker-assisted selection. The technique allows researchers to determine whether a first-generation seedling contains desired genetic materials or “genes.” Only varieties with the right genetic material as identified by markers move to the next step of development.

In addition to conventional testing in the greenhouse and in the field, Worldwide SoyTechnologies has made a commitment to advanced breeding technology by including marker-assisted selection on specific soybean traits. In the past two years, Worldwide SoyTechnologies has invested in additional equipment required to create its new advanced molecular lab, doubled greenhouse space and increased its staff by more than 30 percent. New staff includes a Ph.D-level molecular biologist, a plant pathologist and a nematologist.

“Our goal is to provide customers with the latest in advanced seed technology,” says Jon Hornbeck, a principal in Worldwide SoyTechnologies. “The team that we’ve assembled will help lead us into new and exciting territory.”

Bo knows beans
Dr. Bo Zhang, a molecular biologist, is responsible for the development of Worldwide SoyTechnologies’ advanced molecular lab. Through marker-assisted selection, she uses molecular markers linked to certain genes to identify desirable traits. Dr. Zhang will be able to screen all breeding lines, identifying those with desirable traits – thus speeding up the entire breeding process.

“We’ll also be able to develop new mole-cular markers for certain traits such as disease resistance ourselves,” Dr. Zhang says. “This will give us the ability to develop new cultivars more efficiently.”

James Thomas, research director for Worldwide SoyTechnologies, says Dr. Zhang’s work will greatly enhance the research process.

“She can see things that we can’t, and she has much greater control in the lab,” he says. “Field research is expensive, and if the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can lose a growing cycle, delaying the whole process. With the proper markers and Dr. Zhang’s skills, we will be growing test plots that we already know are resistant to frogeye leaf spot, soybean cyst nematode and other diseases.”

After spending years studying and researching horticulture, biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology in China and at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Zhang is excited to be working on projects with such tangible results.

“At the university level, research is the end result, but now it’s just a means to an end,” says Dr. Zhang.

“I’m using research results to help this breeding program and in the end help farmers. That’s much more gratifying work.”

Dr. Zhang will also analyze seeds for trait and varietal purity to ensure that only the highest quality products are distributed.

Bigger isn’t necessarily better
Beginning with one employee in 1998, Worldwide SoyTechnologies now serves farmers and markets in 19 states – primarily in the southern half of the United States where its field-testing facilities are located. But because Worldwide SoyTechnologies is small enough to adapt to specific regions or environmental conditions, it is increasingly sought out to develop proprietary varieties.

For instance, Worldwide SoyTechnologies helped create a soybean resurgence in Texas – developing new varieties for hurricane-shy farmers who needed lines suitable for earlier planting. Known mainly for its Group 4 and Group 5 soybean varieties, Worldwide SoyTechnologies is also beginning to expand into the Midwest.

HBK Seed, another division of Hornbeck Agricultural Group, is also a customer. Top-performing HBK Seed lines R4924, R5525 and R5226 were developed by Worldwide SoyTechno-logies – and Troy Horn-beck, president of the company, emphasizes that those are just a few of the their top performers.

“I can’t identify the other varieties because of contractual agreements with the companies that market those lines under their own brand,” explains Hornbeck.

A family-owned business
Another branch of the Hornbeck Agricul-tural Group is Arkansas SoyEnergy Group, a 10-million gallon biodiesel production facility also located in DeWitt. For the biodiesel industry, Worldwide SoyTechnologies is working to create soybeans with higher oil content and higher protein levels.

“We set out more than a decade ago to develop high-yielding, disease-resistant soybean varieties with other valuable traits for various specific needs,” says Hornbeck.

“The growth of our team to about 20 researchers and technicians along with the new facilities and equipment investments that we’ve made, allow Worldwide SoyTech-nologies to remain on the cutting edge of soybean breeding technology,” he adds.

As a part of the Hornbeck Agricultural Group, Worldwide SoyTechnologies remains a family-owned business – operated by farming brothers Jeff, Jon and Troy Hornbeck.

“We understand the risks farmers take every day,” Troy Hornbeck says. “We’re not too big for you to drive to DeWitt and talk to the owner and operator if you’d like to. That’s how we’ve always done business and will continue to do so.”

The Hornbeck Agricultural Group contributed information for this article.