Soybean symbiosis — Missouri S&T students research soybeans and bacteria

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On April 5, 2023

Missouri S&T students are researching how to improve soybean farming through the use of symbiotic bacteria. Photo from Pixabay.

Soybeans are Missouri’s top-earning crop, generating billions of dollars in economic impact and supporting over 20,000 jobs within the state. So it should come as no surprise that Missouri is at the cutting edge of soybean-related research.

Missouri S&T students Gabrielle Hightower and Shay Pelfrey are conducting soybean-related research that will contribute to long-term benefits for Missouri farmers. Developing hardier and more competitive bacteria will help to increase crop yield and reduce the amount of nitrogen-rich fertilizer needed to grow plants. This both lowers costs for farmers, and benefits the environment by reducing the effects of problems like fertilizer runoff. 

Hightower and Pelfrey will present soybean-related research projects as part of the University of Missouri System Undergraduate Research Day, Thursday, April 6. Fourteen students from Missouri S&T will travel to Jefferson City to present their work to legislators. The event highlights the contributions of student researchers working with faculty advisors; both Hightower and Pelfrey work with Dr. David Westenberg, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of biological sciences at Missouri S&T.

Both students’ presentations focus on Bradyrhizobium japonicum, a type of bacteria that forms a symbiotic relationship with soybean plants. The bacteria attach to the plants’ roots, forming nodules where nitrogen-fixing can take place. Nitrogen-fixing is a process in which bacteria help plants convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that is easier for the plants to use, and which remains in the soil when the plant dies and breaks down. The plants get richer soil to grow in, and the bacteria get a stable environment.

Pelfrey is a senior in biological sciences from Newburg, Missouri. Her research focuses on producing hardier strains of B. japonicum to make the bacteria (and the soybean plants) more drought resistant. One way to do this is to increase the salt tolerance of the bacteria—when water dries up in a field, any salts left behind in the soil are more potent than if the field was wet. Her research shows that adding particular genes to certain strains of bacteria increases their salt tolerance, and the same process should be successful with B. japonicum. Pelfrey plans to pursue a Ph.D. in microbiology and a doctor of veterinary medicine degree to conduct research in the veterinary field.

Hightower is a senior in biology and psychology from Kansas City, Missouri. Her research is focused on a form of cell-to-cell communication in bacteria called quorum sensing, and how it influences the competitiveness of different strains of bacteria. Commercial strains of bacteria that are more efficient nitrogen-fixers are less competitive than native strains found in soil. Understanding how the bacteria signal and compete with each other should allow researchers to cultivate strains of bacteria that can out-compete soil-based bacteria. Hightower plans to attend Texas A&M to pursue a Ph.D. in medical science.

About Missouri University of Science and Technology

Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) is a STEM-focused research university of over 7,000 students. Part of the four-campus University of Missouri System and located in Rolla, Missouri, Missouri S&T offers 101 degrees in 40 areas of study and is among the nation’s top 10 universities for return on investment, according to Business Insider. For more information about Missouri S&T, visit

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On April 5, 2023. Posted in Department of Biological Sciences

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