⋅ BY JOHN LOVETT ⋅
University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture
Soybean breeder Caio Canella Vieira is building a bridge from the past to the future at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station.
Vieira plans to use advanced genetic tools to speed up the development of new varieties with improvements like yield potential, adaptability in broad environments and overall resilience to biotic and abiotic stressors.
In January, he joined the experiment station and now occupies the office once used by his former mentor and advisor, the late Pengyin Chen. As an assistant professor in the crop, soil and environmental sciences department, Vieira will also teach plant breeding through the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas.
“Arkansas has an incredible legacy of developing varieties, and has a very well-known program,” Vieira said. “We now have an opportunity to take this traditional program into a highly data-driven program maximizing genetic gain. If you can shorten the time to identify superior lines, you can likely improve genetic gain in a breeding cycle.”
He said the time it would traditionally take to develop a new variety, seven to eight years, could be cut in half with modern “predictive breeding” methods using genome-wide molecular markers and advanced statistics. A plant’s genetic information is collected earlier in the breeding cycle, then used to predict a trait of interest before reaching field trials.
“The genetic base of modern soybean is extremely narrow,” Vieira said. “We have a handful of genetically diverse accessions that are the basis of the genetics in the United States, but we have over 20,000 that could have constituted the genetic basis.”
In plant breeding, a genetically diverse accession is a plant material collected at one time from a specific location across the globe. A panel of genetically diverse accessions attempts to capture the genetic diversity available for a given species for further usage in breeding and genetic studies.
“There is a lot of genetic diversity lost during domestication and intensive breeding. I hope we can find economically important traits lost during domestication and breed them back in,” Vieira said.
To make it happen, Vieira combines intuition with data analytics. He collaborates with experts in other areas of plant science like physiology and pathology, along with statisticians and quantitative geneticists. Collaborations are a key element of his work.
“There’s only so much you can do by yourself, especially with breeding where you need a lot of data, which often have substantial interactions with the environment. The more collaborative you get, the better your projects are going to be,” Vieira said.
“Dr. Vieira brings experience, vision and energy for soybean breeding, and I am confident he is going to take our program to new heights,” said Jeff Edwards, head of the crop, soil and environmental sciences department. “Soybean breeding is one of our largest research programs, and we are fortunate to attract someone with Dr. Vieira’s potential for our next generation of leadership and scientific innovation.”
Edwards said Vieira is “a great communicator and a great listener” who is eager to interact with Arkansas soybean producers and learn about their needs.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that his program will deliver genetics that reflect the needs of the Arkansas farmer,” Edwards added.
Soybeans are Arkansas’ top cash crop, worth more than $1.9 billion and planted on over three million acres in the state, according to the 2022 Arkansas Agriculture Profile. Vieira has already worked on projects that address many of the issues faced by Arkansas soybean farmers, from disease and pest resistance to broad environmental adaptation and base economic factors of improved yield and oil content. He also participated in a study with Chen to identify soybean varieties tolerant of off-target dicamba herbicide.
While improvements in yield potential and adaptation to environments guide soybean plant breeding goals, Vieira said there are also opportunities to improve consumer qualities in edamame and natto soybean varieties by working with local farmers and scientists from other departments.
Vieira came to the United States in 2014 after finishing the first two years of his undergraduate studies at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, under Baldin Pinheiro’s guidance. He studied for a year at the University of Minnesota and was a visiting scholar at Purdue University under the supervision of Katy Rainey before earning his master’s and a doctorate in plant breeding, genetics and genomics at the University of Missouri-Columbia, with Chen and Henry Nguyen as his advisors. Vieira received the Monsanto Graduate Student Scholarship in 2018, was named a National Association of Plant Breeders Borlaug Scholar in 2019 and received the Corteva DELTA Scholarship in 2021.