Farmers in eastern Asia domesticated soybeans more than 3,000 years ago, selecting wild varieties for traits that would grow and yield well. In the 1700s, soybeans spread to Europe and North America, eventually becoming a popular crop in the United States around World War II. Since then, American plant breeders have selectively bred soybeans for a number of traits, including oil and protein profiles. Soybean seeds contain about 20 percent oil, and that oil is a common component of cooking today – those labeled “vegetable oils” are usually soybean oil.
High oleic soybean oil has a higher amount of monounsaturated fat. High oleic soybean oil comes from three different types of soybeans — two created through transgenic genetic modification and a third through mutation of a native gene. The transgenic versions use RNA interference, a genetic mechanism that is similar to certain types of immune responses to viruses, to reduce the expression of a gene that converts oleic fatty acid into another downstream form of oil. The result is that the plant accumulates more oleic fatty acid. The non-transgenic high oleic soybeans have the mutations in the same gene, again reducing its expression so that oleic fatty acids accumulate in the oil at high levels.
The high oleic soybean varieties available today perform as well as other types of soybeans, though they’re a little more expensive at the moment since the seed must be kept separate from other commodity soybean seeds. The expense of identity preservation should decline, however, as acreage increases — in 2017 there were more than 600,000 acres planted with high oleic soybeans, and the United Soybean Board has a goal of 18 million acres by 2023.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Katy Martin Rainey is an expert in soybean genetics and breeding. Dr. Rainey received her Bachelor’s degree in Botany from the University of Georgia, and her Ph.D. in plant breeding from Cornell University. She is currently a professor in the Agronomy department at Purdue University. She studies genetic improvement of soybeans for increased yield and better quality. Dr. Rainey is broadly interested in how to modify the commodity paradigm in soybean to create new markets and grow value across the entire value chain.