Israel’s NRGene helps unveil genetic makeup of soybeans

Software provided by the startup is used by US researchers to map 2 varieties, with the aim of upping their oil and protein content

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative image of soybeans in a farmer's hands (fotokostic, iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of soybeans in a farmer's hands (fotokostic, iStock by Getty Images)

Israeli startup NRGene has helped assemble two genomes of the soybean, which will help farmers improve the quality of their crops.

Dr. Henry Nguyen, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources, used NRGene‘s gene assembly software for crop plants to map out the genomic makeup of two genomes of soybean: the “Lee,” a variety used for breeding in the southern United States, and G. soja, a wild variety of the bean, whose genetic makeup is very different from those of cultivated varieties.

Soybeans are increasingly relied upon as a source of oil and protein across the globe, both for animal and human use. Getting to know the genetic makeup of these beans can help scientists increase the content of both in a single plant using traditional breeding methods, NRGene said in a statement last week.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, soy is a billion-dollar global industry that feeds millions of animals worldwide and is a major part of our diet. Soybeans are the “king of beans,” the WWF says, consisting of 38 percent protein — twice as much as pork, three times more than eggs and 12 times more than milk.

According to 2016 data provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the US grows 35% of the world’s soybeans, with Brazil a close second at 29% and Argentina at 18%. The soybean grain market itself is worth more than $40 billion in the United States alone.

“These investments in technology will directly help breeders to improve soybean lines for sustainability and traits like improved oils and meal components,” said Jackie Weiss, United Soybean Board director of Digital Agriculture, Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology.

The USB funded the soy sequencing project together with three private companies: Bayer CropScience, DOW AgroSciences and Monsanto.

NRGene’s CEO Gil Ronen (Courtesy)

NRGene said the soya assemblies it provided are “the most accurate and complete genome representations” of these cultivations. The Ness Ziona, Israel-based startup was the first company in the world that managed to map the genome for bread, pasta and wild emmer wheat.

The soybean team, in addition to NRGene, included a group of scientists from the University of Missouri, the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and other academic institutions in the US, Australia and Hong Kong.

Both genome sequences were released to the soybean database.

“We must secure highly nutritional food for the ever-growing world population, and the soybean is a key resource for global oil and protein consumption,” said Gil Ronen, NRGene’s CEO. “Soy researchers can now plumb the depths of the genome more easily in order to discover the critical traits necessary to create hardier species with higher nutritional values.”

Founded by Ronen and Guy Kol in 2010, NRGene is a genomic company that enlisted code crackers from the Israeli Defense Forces’ elite 8200 unit to write algorithms and software to breakdown the genetic makeup of humans, plants, and animals, with the aim of mapping complex genomes quickly and accurately to help breeding and research programs.

NRGene’s software is used by some of the leading seed companies in the world as well as academic researchers globally.

read more: