Imagine you're touring the Purdue University Agronomic Research Center. You happen across these plants in the field that at first glance look like morning glories. At second glance they don't look like morning glories, but they look like some sort of low-growing weed. You're about to help out the farm crew and pull them out as weeds until you realize they're planted in rows across the field. Surely this isn't a new crop? Is it a new weed? Is Purdue cultivating a new weed species?
No, it's not a new crop. No, Purdue isn't cultivating a new weed species. But it would be a good thing that you didn't pull them up and throw them to the side as weds. They're wild soybean plants, growing under the careful eye of Janxing Ma. They may hold the key to a future trait that could be inserted into conventional soybean lines that yield and perform normally in Midwest fields. The key word is 'could' – it's a long, tedious process and a long road to identifying useful traits and introducing them into modern soybean genetics.
Ma says he became interested in searching for new traits in the wild soybeans because the gene pool of today's soybean varieties is not very diverse. That means it's harder to find traits that might fix a problem with soybeans, or help change the composition because there aren't a wide array of far-out genes for far-out traits to choose from. However, if you can find what you're looking for in a wild variety and figure out how to introduce it into lines that are normal, then you might be able to make progress toward developing a better soybeans. Maybe you could push soybean yields up at the same time.
Ma knows it won't be an easy task, but he's working on it year round – in the summer in the field, and in the winter, in the lab. And he thanks you for not pulling his plants and tossing them aside. They're certainly not weeds!