After four years of research, molecular biologist Dr Kristin Bilyeu of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) says she has identified the genes in soybeans responsible for the low-linolenic acid trait.
Most soybeans contain high levels of linolenic acid, which reduces the shelf life and stability of products made from soy oil. To overcome this problem, soy oil is often partially hydrogenated to reduce linolenic acid levels. But this, in turn, produces artery-clogging trans fatty acids.
And with the growing need to remove trans fats from product formulations, plant breeders have responded by tackling the problem in the bean, in order to eliminate the need for hydrogenation.
With Bilyeu's findings, it will soon become easier to produce the beans to make the oil.
"Although breeders have already produced varieties of low-linolenic soybeans, they were doing it blindly, without really knowing which gene controls the trait," she told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
Genes are pieces of DNA that are blueprints for proteins, explained Bilyeu. There are three genes in soybeans that encode the protein responsible for manufacturing linolenic acid. When those genes are caused to mutate, they can no longer produce the protein, so the production of linolenic acid is inhibited.
Bilyeu claims to be the first to have characterized the genes responsible for the trait, findings that will significantly speed up the process of identifying low-linolenic soybean varieties.
"It is the trans fat issue that drives this project. If we don't respond to market needs then soy oil could be left out of the equation," she said.
"We are trying to match future demands with research now, so we can provide options for food companies. If people start choosing products based on the fat content on labels, low-linolenic soy oil is due to increase in popularity," she added.
Indeed, a number of companies have already turned to low-linolenic soy oil in order to reduce the trans fat content of their products.
Cereal giant Kellogg recently became the first major food manufacturer to announce its use of soybean oil derived from Monsanto's low-linolenic Vistive beans to create healthier alternatives to some if its products.
And Monsanto has said its Vistive beans, launched in 2004 after ten years in development, are in strong demand. The company contracted all available beans last year and recently announced that this year it is to team up with food-processing and agricultural-services firm Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), which will contract growers for up to 40,000 acres of Vistive soybeans, or 8 percent of the total amount of the beans to be grown in 2006.
Bilyeu's work now promises to contribute to making low-linolenic soybean oil even more popular.
She has already submitted her markers- or identification method- to GenBank, a database of the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Details of her work are also due to appear in the coming months in the journal Crop Science, which has already featured several articles written by Bilyeu on her research.