Legumes — beans, peas and other edible seeds that are enclosed in pods — are celebrated worldwide for their edible oils, protein and essential amino acids, as well as for their ability to convert airborne nitrogen into useable soil nutrients for other plants.

They constitute a multibillion-dollar food industry and some also serve as important forage crops.

Since legumes' nutritional significance makes them scientifically important, they're the subject of a flourishing Web site. Called the Legume Information System (LIS), it's a collaborative effort between the Agricultural Research Service and the National Center for Genome Resources (NCGR).

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency, while NCGR is an independent, nonprofit research institution based in Santa Fe, N.M., that develops and uses data for biological discovery.

According to geneticist Randy Shoemaker of the ARS Corn Insects and Crop Genetics Research Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, LIS addresses a major problem stemming from the recent boom in genetic sequencing: It integrates, compiles and delivers data to researchers in a readily comprehensible form. LIS concentrates on the data collected on the genetics, physiology and biochemistry of the organisms that help feed the population.

The Web site is a potentially long-term project funded by USDA through the Model Plant Initiative, which is still in development. The site, which is marking its third year, specializes in genetic data from legumes such as soybean, Lotus and a relative of alfalfa frequently used as a genetic model of other legumes.

LIS integrates genetic and molecular data from multiple legume species, making cross-species comparisons possible. Its libraries of gene transcripts (messages produced by genes) are accessible through images of plant organs in different developmental stages.

The Model Plant Initiative was established by Congress to translate information and discoveries from well-studied plant species to economically critical legumes, such as soybeans, dry beans, peanuts and alfalfa.

LIS can be found on the Internet at: http://www.comparative-legumes.org