Two Leading Crops, One Biotechnology Program Leading the Way

Changing the World One Cultivar at a Time

Inside SUNY Cobleskill’s biotech laboratory, Drs. Peiyu Zeng and Lynda McMaster-Schuyler are advancing the narrative of one of the world’s most widespread crops. In creating cultivars of disease-resistant soybeans, the pair is on its way to developing a variety of plant capable of tolerating drought, infestation, and other biological and environmental influencers. 

The project is titled “Development of Stress-Tolerant Soybeans through SIZ1 Gene Overexpression.” What it aims to accomplish is the creation of soybean cultivars genetically resistant to stress factors, and possessing greater potential to overcome sub-optimal growing conditions. 

 “You always want to do important work,” says Dr. McMaster-Schuyler. “You want your work to make a difference. We are looking at what future trends and needs may be, and the role they are going to play. This is one small step of that, and also a big piece of the College’s vision overall.” 

The worldwide popularity of soy is a testament to the crop’s versatility and durability. While soy is an especially difficult plant with which to work, Dr. Zeng is a leading expert on engineering new cultivars.  

“The plant doesn’t regenerate well on its own,” explains Dr. Zeng. “But once you get soy, that makes [working with crops like] hemp and hops much easier.” SUNY Cobleskill’s Biotechnology Program has gained national attention for its work with hops, and research is underway on cultivating disease-resistant strains of hemp.  

Still, the progression from lab research to marketing is a lengthy one; researchers describe new cultivars of plants and fungi every day, Dr. Zeng estimates, and the USDA reviews each before any hits the market. Developing an individual cultivar in a lab is a far stretch from replicating it on a farm. From identifying a disease-resistant soybean at SUNY Cobleskill to having seeds available for sale could take up to a decade.

Feature photo: samples of the soy plants tested in SUNY Cobleskill’s labs.

A Most Modern Cup of Coffee

an Asian Palm Civet cat peaks through the leaves while perched in a tree.
The Asian palm civet is the key to the rich flavor of Kopi Luwak.

If 70 percent of Americans drink coffee – the widely accepted percentage – no more than a handful regularly drink Kopi Luwak, or civet coffee. This premium coffee from Indonesia takes on its signature flavor after the Asian palm civet consumes, digests, and excretes the coffee fruits. The beans are then are collected and sold; one pound of civet coffee goes for roughly $550.

The flavor enhancements stem from the palm civet’s gastric fermentation process, which hydrolyzes proteins in the coffee beans and adds amino acids. Seeking to replicate this treatment of the coffee fruits at SUNY Cobleskill, Drs. McMaster-Schuyler and Zeng treated coffee with acids, enzymes, and bacteria. 

The resulting brews, based on taste tests, yielded smooth, rich coffee, with a warming aroma. According to the study, simulated civet coffee is “best achieved by treating coffee beans with both enzymes and bacteria, [producing] the smoothest, best tasting coffee.” The ultimate experiment, Dr. McMaster-Schuyler says, is to compare their coffee to real civet coffee.

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Michael Murphy
Michael Murphy

Great story…one of the many reasons that Dr. Peiyu Zeng was also selected recently as an Honored Professor in the Foreign Experts Institute at Zhejiang University of Technology in Hangzhou, China…

Robert and Jean Klinger
Robert and Jean Klinger

My wife and I, both 1967 graduates, attended the our 50th reunion in 2017 and heard the President in her presentation, discuss research being done at at the school on disease resistant hops. As this was a early major crop in our region we are quite interested in how this has progressed. I would hope that this might be included in a future article.

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