Crop Genetics Group uses plant breeding and genomics to improve food security and reduce prices

To compete with farmers throughout the region, Virginia’s agricultural operators depend on the latest crop variety releases to ensure high yields and other desirable traits. Researchers in Virginia Tech’s Crop Genetics Group develop new lines of soybeans, wheat, and barley to raise agricultural profitability and sustainability and, therefore, reduce food prices.

“Virginia Tech has been involved in variety development of soybeans for more than 30 years,” said Katy Martin Rainey, assistant professor of crop and soil environmental sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We are one of just a few land-grant colleges and universities in the mid-Atlantic region contributing to food security and reducing food prices through crop breeding and genetics.”


Carl Griffey (orange jacket) showcases new crop varieties at a field day at the Eastern Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Warsaw, Va. Carl Griffey (orange jacket) showcases new crop varieties at a field day at the Eastern Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Warsaw, Va.

Rainey and her colleagues are combining quality traits with good performance in soybeans. “Our main objective is to develop high-yield varieties of soybean, one of the most economically important crops in the state,” she said.

Virginia soybean producers harvest more than 15 million bushels of the crop each year, contributing between $75 million and $100 million to the state’s economy. Rainey also leads one of the only soybean-breeding programs in the country that targets adaptation to no-till farming systems, which sequester carbon, increase water-holding capacity and filtration, protect soil, and reduce fuel consumption.

“Our varieties have been the highest yielding under these conditions in trials with varieties from major seed companies,” Rainey explained.

Carl Griffey, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, does similar work for two small grains: wheat and barley. Each year, Virginia Tech typically produces one to three varieties of wheat – a crop that generated more than $71 million for the state’s economy in 2007. In spring 2008, Griffey oversaw the development of five winter-wheat varieties and collaborated with Kansas State University scientists for two additional lines.


A graduate student in the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental  Sciences emasculates barley plants for research. A graduate student in the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences emasculates barley plants for research.

“What has accelerated this process more than anything is our collaboration with breeders in other states in the eastern [United States],” Griffey said. He predicts that this process will also gain momentum from marker-assisted selection technology.

“Last year, we did use markers to identify genes of interest in the new varieties of wheat, but we did not select the varieties based on this technology,” Griffey said. “We are not only using a better understanding of genetics to create these new lines of wheat but also are identifying, mapping, and selecting desirable genes using molecular technology and marker-assisted breeding.”

The soft wheat varieties typically grown in Virginia are used for foods like pastries and crackers. Although the hard wheat varieties used for breads are worth 40 cents to 50 cents more per bushel, they are not typically grown in the commonwealth’s wet climate.

Griffey also developed a line of hull-less barley last year, and Virginia Tech’s plant breeding program has worked with Osage Bioenergy on the creation of a $160 million plant in Hopewell, Va., that will convert barley into ethanol and potentially triple the region’s barley production.

Value-added crops increase agricultural profitability and protect the environment

Livestock, the top consumer of domestically grown soybeans, can readily digest about one-quarter of the crop’s phosphorus content. Virginia’s swine and poultry operators must choose between paying for dietary supplements that enable their animals to process the extra nutrients and potentially polluting sensitive ecosystems such as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Crop Genetics Group is looking for a third option: low-phytate soybeans.


A researcher cross-pollinates soybeans. A researcher cross-pollinates soybeans.

“We have discovered a soybean that is low in phytate by nature,” said M.A. Saghai Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, who adds that the crop is naturally high in this indigestible form of phosphorus. “Because the soybean we found does not have a high yield, we are combining a conventional approach to crop breeding with genomics tools to accelerate the development of high-yielding and low-phytate soybeans with normal emergence.”

Virginia Tech is the only university with a line of low-phytate soybeans, which Maroof hopes will not only save money that livestock producers would have used for dietary supplements but will also stymie phosphorus pollution at its source.

“We are identifying molecular markers that are associated with low-phytate genes and using these markers to aid their transfers into elite cultivars,” Maroof said.

Although low-phytate soybeans will not be commercially available for years to come, Maroof and his colleagues have already started a collaborative feeding trial for poultry and swine in conjunction with the University of Missouri and a Canadian processing company.

Researchers are using similar techniques to develop a soybean line with low levels of undesirable sugars and provide more protein and calories than conventional varieties.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Michael Sutphin at or (540) 231-6975.

Plant disease resistance

    Plant Disease Resistance

M. A. Saghai Maroof and his colleagues are leading a project to modify techniques that other researchers have used to isolate genes controlling disease resistance in tobacco and mustard weed. The modified techniques would be applied to soybeans. Read more.

Virginia’s major row crops

CropAcres harvested – 2007

Source: Data from 2007 Acreage Report, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Plant breeding careers

Like their ancient counterparts, today’s plant breeders observe and select desirable traits to create new crop varieties. 

Wheat CAP (Coordinated Agricultural Project), a multi-state, multi-institution project has created an animated presentation with more information about plant breeding as a modern career. 

The project is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service. 

The presentation also highlights Virginia Tech’s research and outreach in this area.

Related articles

Spotlight Archive

Look through previous Spotlight stories

Access the archives