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The miracle crop just keeps on growing.

Like the old farm saying about utilizing every part of a pig but its squeal, soybeans have found their way into an eye-opening array of products, edible and otherwise.

Starting with the basics in nutrition, there's milk - not cow's milk, but soy milk. In the United States, soy milk is used in infant formulas, and it's stocked in health food stores as well.

Soy milk plays an even more important role in human nutrition in other parts of the world. In China, it's called tou chaing, and cafes there that specialize in this beverage often have an open pot of boiling tou chaing in front of the shop to lure customers, in much the same way sizzling onion bits on a grill make mouths water on a carnival midway.

A soybean food product that's probably more familiar to the average American consumer is tofu, soybean curd made by coagulating soy milk. Far from being just a fad, tofu - also spelled tou fu - dates back many centuries. One popular recipe for preparing tofu was developed by Liu An, King of Wainan, sometime between 179 and 122 B.C.

Today, there are also soy yogurt, soyburgers, soy loaf, and soy sausage. Soy oil is the most widely used edible oil in the United States; you can find it in mayonnaise, salad dressing, whipping cream, and dessert frostings. Soy components such as protein and oil are ingredients in dozens of everyday foods - from the granola bar at breakfast and the potato chips at lunch, to a late-night snack of ice cream - and it's almost impossible to find a chocolate treat minus soy lecithin.

Thanks to research by ARS scientists, soybeans have been incorporated into many common nonfood products ranging from the morning newspaper printed with soy oil-based ink to cleaners capable of lifting grease, catsup, mustard, ink, lipstick, and mascara stains from fabric. It's difficult to imagine a day without soybeans.

But soybeans actually got off to a slow start in the United States. Although they arrived here in the mid-1700's, they didn't really catch on until the 1920's.

Demand for soy products was already on the rise: The United States imported 23.5 million pounds of soybean oil in 1927. But farmers were still cautious about trying this new crop. At that year's Tama County (Iowa) fair, first prize for an exhibit went to a display that promoted soybeans' potential as a cash and feed crop and proclaimed soybeans "The New Iowa Dollar."

In the 1927 Yearbook of Agriculture, Secretary of Agriculture W.M. Jardine had this to report to the President and to the farmers he hoped would be the chief beneficiaries of the book:

"During the past year many new varieties of soy beans have been received from our agricultural explorers. ... The adaptability of the soy bean to new conditions is well illustrated by the Virginia variety. In the Ozark region of Missouri, extensive tests failed to show any promising sorts until the Virginia was tried and found to succeed admirably on the less fertile Ozark soils. The range of local adaptability is extensive and the study of varieties must be carried on over a wide territory."

More than 65 years later, farmers still strive to plant just the right variety of soybean for a specific setting, even to the extent of planting beans of varying maturity dates at different locations in a single state.

But science is working to manipulate the soybean in more sophisticated ways. At one ARS laboratory at Beltsville, Maryland, scientists have cloned genes for proteins in soybeans, with an eye to improving the quality of the beans' oil.

The scientists want to pinpoint what turns these genes on the off, since they prompt production of the proteins which, in turn, are involved in production and packaging of the oil inside the bean. The researchers also want to know how factors such as drought and heat stress affect the activity of the genes.

At another Beltsville lab, ARS scientists are studying the gene that controls when soybean plants shed their flowers, frequently in response to drought or other stresses. Fewer flowers mean fewer beans.

The gene in question orders cells to make an enzyme called cellulase. Flowers are shed when cellulase dissolves the biochemical glue between a single layer of stem cells and cells of the departing flower. The researchers hope to find the part of the gene that acts as its "on-off" switch.

The world is a much different place from the days when soybean were touted as the Miracle Crop. But one thing hasn't changed: There are still plenty of scientific paths to explore on the way to achieving soybeans' full potential.
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Title Annotation:soybean
Author:Hays, Sandy Miller
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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