Growing up on a vegetable farm with his father, Zenglu Li, had an interest in plant breeding from an early age. Zenglu spent much of the growing season carefully watching the produce, thinking of ways to improve the crop to harvest more food.

With gradual growth, Zenglu expanded to examining wheat on his family’s farm. With years of unbeknownst research underhand, that’s when his career path clicked. 

“My dad motivated me to pursue plant breeding,” said Zenglu. “I remember that I wanted a higher yield on the wheat we grew, and I realized that some varieties did just that. My dad recognized this intrigue and pushed me in that direction. However, after graduating there were no positions for wheat breeding, but there were soybean positions.”

After graduating with a doctorate from the University of Illinois in plant breeding and genetics Zenglu worked with a variety of crops in both the public and private sectors before heading to the University of Georgia as the principal investigator for the University’s Soybean Breeding and Genetics Laboratory.

“I immediately began working with the SOYLEIC trait, with the intention of breeding to improve yield and disease resistance,” said Zenglu, “Throughout the years I have been working to breed for high yield and to develop a defense package in SOYLEIC soybeans to protect yield.”

The focus of breeding programs is to provide benefits to farmers across the nation. Projects to increase yield, build disease resistance, and develop higher nutritional percentages are being done by breeders to increase the value add of the mighty soybean.

“By incorporating the high-oleic trait into elite genetics of soybeans at the University of Georgia, we have developed three high-yielding, high-oleic soybean cultivars that benefit farmers,” said Zenglu, “but farmers aren’t the only ones who benefit, the high-oleic trait will have a big impact downstream for food processors and consumers.”

This research is being done faster than ever. With new innovations and methodologies being used every day in soybean breeding, the process it takes to develop these cultivars is more efficient.

“Research has changed dramatically over the past few years, specifically DNA sequencing and genomic technology,” tells Zenglu. “DNA sequencing and genomic technology have enabled us to discover genes of interest and develop DNA markers as a genetic selection tool that helps improve the breeding efficiency and accelerate the breeding cycle.”

Research takes time but researchers like Zenglu are using these technologies and methods to improve their efficiency and deliver a marketable product sooner to farmers.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to accelerate and improve the genetic gain of the soybean with value-added traits,” emphasizes Zenglu.

From the wheat fields to the research plots in northeastern Georgia, Zenglu Li has always been fervent in developing a product that delivers a valuable experience to both farmers and consumers.

Vince Pantalone >