Soybeans are a remarkable source of protein as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Soybean protein is so valued that it is used in numerous food products from baked goods to beverages. To keep up with demand, the US Department of Agriculture reports that soybeans are the second-most-planted field crop in the United States after corn.
Unfortunately, a formidable adversary threatens their growth and yield: the soybean cyst nematode (SCN).
UNC Charlotte graduate student Neha Mittal, PhD, is working on wild soybean chemical defense. She is two years into her second PhD program in the department of Biological Sciences under the supervision of Dr. Bao-Hua Song, Assistant Professor at UNCC. Mittal completed her first PhD in forest genetics at Forest Research Institute University, Dehradun in India. She joined the NC Research Campus (NCRC) in 2016 as part of the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP) where she worked with four undergraduate students to research a certain pathway involved in soybean plant defense.
One of Mittal’s research goals is to improve the yield of soybean crops in the face of SCN, focusing on a natural chemical defense that is stronger in some wild soybean plants than in others. These wild soybean plants produce a secondary metabolite called glyceollin, which acts as a protective force against SCN. With the help of the P2EP interns during May, June, and July of this year, Mittal looked at the gene expression patterns of the glyceollin pathway in wild soybeans to learn more about how the plant naturally protects itself and discerned why glyceollins are produced more often in the resistant soybean plant than in the susceptible one.
“I look at the steps involved in the glyceollin pathway individually,” Mittal explained. “I see different levels of expression of genes at different steps in the pathway, suggesting that different steps are more important for glyceollin induction than others.”
Mittal’s wild soybean project has the potential to reveal the genes responsible for producing more glyceollins. “My research provides an opportunity to improve the soybean crop that people eat in the world,” she said.
She is personally interested in nutrition and eating healthy ever since working on her first PhD in India, a project focusing on genetic diversity analysis of phytochemicals in medicinal plants.
“You should know what you are eating and how it is beneficial to your health,” Mittal said. “This is why I’m interested in studying how compounds in fruits and vegetables react with the body, and I’d like to build my career around providing society with crops that are compatible with living a healthy life.”
Mittal plans to continue working as a mentor for P2EP summer interns to help them understand basic research concepts. After finishing her second PhD, Mittal sees herself building on her experience with P2EP to work in an industry studying plants and their nutritious products “to figure out how we can use these compounds to treat emerging diseases.”
By Kara Marker, NCRC Marketing