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Soybean roots are ISU grad student's focus

Article cover photo
Ph.D. candidate Kevin Falk is studying the architecture of soybean roots and root traits for better plant selection. (Photo courtesy Chris Gannon, Iowa State University).

By Carol Brown, ISA environmental communications specialist

Kevin Falk likes to dig down and get to the root of an issue.

The graduate student at Iowa State University (ISU) is embarking on improving genetic diversity of soybeans through his doctoral research, earning awards and accolades along the way.

“Genetic diversity is very important in a breeding program and the diversity within the soybean is narrow,” Falk said. “I’m trying to improve this by specifically looking at soybean roots and root traits. I’m using the many tools available such as genotypic data, machine learning, computer vision and others.”

Falk’s research project required him to spend many hours generally in two places: the soybean field and the laboratory’s photography studio.

“I hope to find ways to select better plants by looking at the roots,” said Falk. “In the past, yield has been the main criteria for genetic selection. The idea is to use the genotypic data we have to predict what diverse genotypes there may be in soybean lines from around the world.”

He started out by using nearly 300 soybean lines from all over the world as well as the USDA soybean germplasm collection and screening them in a laboratory growth chamber, taking pictures of the roots at various growing points to observe how they develop.

From there Falk chose which soybean varieties to pursue and sowed about 1,000 plants in several research fields. He then dug them up when the plants were at early and full growth stages and got them ready for their close ups, carefully cleaning the roots to expose the architecture of the root systems.  Then it was into the studio to photograph the structures from numerous angles — 100,000 images in all.

He was part of a collaboration that created a scanning system which composes a 3D model of each plant for analyzation. The project team is comprised of nine graduate students, 12 undergrads, four staff and two post-doctoral researchers. Falk, a self-admitted people person, gets to interact with the entire cross-disciplinary team of students and experts including plant breeders and geneticists, engineers, agronomists, and data scientists collaborating for better soybean diversity.

Other researchers are collaborating with Falk. For example, ISU plant pathology professor Gwyn Beattie is exploring the DNA of microbes found on the soybean roots. This combined work could lead to new soybean varieties.

The ISA connection

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) supports soybean research projects through checkoff funding in collaboration with ISU researchers and Extension teams. ISA funding also supports projects through the Iowa Soybean Research Center, housed at ISU. Dr. Asheesh “Danny” Singh and his students have ongoing projects funded directly and indirectly by ISA to improve the soybean and farmer profitability, one of which is Falk’s.

“Our research projects overlap among the people in our group and we have a succession plan,” said Singh. “So as a student gets ready to complete their portion of the project, another student can come in and overlap with the student who is near graduation. Unanswered questions are taken up by the next student.”

Singh said it is a big challenge for a group or research entity if a project ends abruptly without solving the problem or answering relevant questions.

Another student, Clayton Carley, will be working on the research team to follow up on Falk’s research. Falk is also working with graduate students across disciplines. He and Kyle Parmley are connected through the soybean plant, as Parmley is working on above-ground traits.

“You need to first find out what is happening below ground. Then we need to be able to connect it to what is happening above ground,” said Singh.

Falk’s roots

A native of Manitoba, Canada, Falk was pursuing canola breeding at the University of Manitoba, where he earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees. After seeing areas in Canada beginning to grow soybeans, he saw an opportunity to expand production, which led him to ISU.

“Dr. Singh is Canadian as well and we have shared connections through the Canadian wheat breeding community,” Falk said. “It was an easy decision to choose Iowa State in the heart of soybean country and to learn from the best.”

Falk brings an in-depth knowledge of root systems to ISU, Singh said.

“We didn’t have anyone with that kind of expertise,” said Singh. “He’s probably one of a minority of researchers who are currently working on soybean crop species – industry-wide – who are experts in root traits. It is something that, through application and dedication, he has taught himself. He keeps learning and improving.”

Multimedia is a common thread

In addition to photography, Falk is using video to amplify his research. He recently won the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) “Better Seed, Better Life” national video contest.  His submission addressed the topic of how plant breeding is misunderstood, in response to the contest theme “Rumor Has It.”  The video contest was sponsored by ASTA and the National Association of Plant Breeders (NAPB).

Falk has a YouTube channel containing his contest entry as well as videos of himself and team members literally out in the field, explaining the aspects of the research projects.

In addition to his award-winning video, Falk was named a Borlaug Scholar at the 2018 NAPB annual meeting. He was one of four graduate students to hold this inaugural honor, along with four undergraduate students, two of which were from ISU. His body of work has been acknowledged at ISU as well. This spring Falk was named the Most Outstanding Graduate by the ISU Agronomy Department and earned the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) Leadership Award and the GPSS Research Award.

“Kevin is keen to take up new challenges that lead to an outcome,” remarked Singh. “That requires someone with a mindset who actually likes challenges. Some people might find it daunting, but there are people who get energy from it, and Kevin is one of those people.”

Falk is defending his Ph.D. in plant breeding thesis in April and intends to continue his work to grow a better soybean from the roots up.

Contact Carol Brown at

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