Soybean is a high phosphorus (P) demand species that is sensitive to low-P stress. Although many quantitative trait loci (QTL) for P efficiency have been identified in soybean, but few of these have been cloned and agriculturally applied mainly due to various limitations on identifying suitable P efficiency candidate genes. Here, we combined QTL mapping, transcriptome profiling, and plant transformation to identify candidate genes underlying QTLs associated with low-P tolerance and response mechanisms to low-P stress in soybean. By performing QTL linkage mapping using 152 recombinant inbred lines (RILs) that were derived from a cross between a P-efficient variety, Nannong 94–156, and P-sensitive Bogao, we identified four major QTLs underlying P efficiency. Within these four QTL regions, 34/81 candidate genes in roots/leaves were identified using comparative transcriptome analysis between two transgressive RILs, low-P tolerant genotype B20 and sensitive B18. A total of 22 phosphatase family genes were up-regulated significantly under low-P condition in B20. Overexpression of an acid phosphatase candidate gene, GmACP2, in soybean hairy roots increased P efficiency by 15.43–24.54 % compared with that in controls. Our results suggest that integrating QTL mapping and transcriptome profiling could be useful for rapidly identifying candidate genes underlying complex traits, and phosphatase-encoding genes, such as GmACP2, play important roles involving in low-P stress tolerance in soybean.