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Soybeans That Floods Can't Drown

Developments to Watch


It's too late to save soybeans drowned in the great Midwestern flood of 1993, but farmers may do better in future floods with crossbreeds of a bean from southern China. Nearly all soybeans planted in the U.S. are descended from beans from dry Manchuria. In July, 1990, Tara Tran VanToai, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Agriculture Dept. and Ohio State University, traveled to the wetter Shanghai region in search of a bean that would better withstand immersion. The Yangtze River had just flooded, and the soybean plants at research institutes in the river basin were destroyed. But VanToai found vibrantly healthy plants in Chinese villagers' backyard gardens that also had been flooded. The seeds had been passed down through generations of families.

Back in the U.S., VanToai and colleagues are trying to locate the genes responsible for flood tolerance and crossbreed the Chinese varieties with American ones. She says farmers may be able to plant the new strains in five to eight years. Floods are less of a problem than droughts for U.S. bean farmers. Still, VanToai says the discovery of a useful trait in backyard gardens illustrates the importance of biodiversity.EDITED BY PETER COY

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