URBANA, Ill. (AP) -- Think of this as a library for soybeans.
Quiet envelops you. Shelves are filled with material, some of it old and rarely used. Staff members sit at big tables sorting through items to enter into the collection. Everything is catalogued with a specific code and number.
And it's a chilly 50 degrees because it's better for the soybeans that way.
This is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Soybean Germplasm Collection, housed at the University of Illinois.
Germplasm is the word researchers use to refer to a species' hereditary material or genetic diversity, the unique traits that a species exhibits.
The collection's mission is to preserve the genetic diversity of the soybean, a plant that traces it roots thousands of years back to China.
The easiest and cheapest way to do that is to keep seeds of different varieties and make them available to scientists around the world for use in researching topics such as soybean yields and disease resistance. Scientists who work with the collection also do their own research.
``It is an international treasure in the sense that a lot of the raw materials for biotechnology are present in that collection someplace, genes that are important for some aspect of agriculture or food production,'' said Steve Pueppke, associate dean for the university's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
The collection was established in 1949, along with a similar one in Mississippi that has since been phased out. The UI facility now houses 17,000 varieties of soybeans and is the lone working collection, although there is a stash in Colorado kept for back-up purposes.
The collection did not receive much attention in its early years -- many of the soybean lines preserved there were collected as a novelty by plant explorers who had visited Asia in the 1920s and '30s.
``In the '50s and '60s, germplasm was very much a sideline. It didn't get a lot of attention and even less money,'' said Randall Nelson, the curator of the collection.
But then came the corn leaf blight epidemic of the early 1970s when almost all of the corn seed on the market grew a susceptible plant.
``It really got people's attention because of the major losses. What it highlighted was that if you have a lot of genetic uniformity, this is what can happen,'' Nelson said.
Soybeans had also become a massively important crop to the U.S. economy by then.
So the Agriculture Department started expanding the collection, and over the years has gathered wild and domesticated varieties of soybean plants from countries like Russia, Korea, China and Japan.
New additions of seeds are grown out, evaluated for yield in the fields and characterized for genetic diversity in the laboratory.
The 17,000 different varieties are kept in a 50-degree vault in cardboard boxes. One box can hold up to 5,000 seeds-- enough to give away to interested researchers in the 10 years before plants are grown again to harvest new seeds.
In recent years, the Soybean Germplasm Collection's own scientists have focused on increasing the yield level of commercial soybean varieties.
In the future, Nelson hopes the scientists will be able to expand the soybean family tree. He feels that most soybeans being planted today have been bred from too few ancestors and may not be taking advantage of beneficial genes found in other varieties.
For instance, studies show that 35 ancestors are responsible for 95 percent of genes found in soybeans planted today. In Illinois, there are three lines that account for 50 percent of the genes in soybeans planted in the state.
``Our research program has been trying to find ways to get diversity out of the collection to improve our varieties,'' Nelson said. ``We've concentrated more of these good genes in our modern varieties, but our theory is we haven't got them all.''