U.S. peanuts farmers can expect a “paradigm shift” in peanut production within a few years when breeders begin taking advantage of a new tool to select for improved traits in new varieties.
Marker-assisted breeding will allow peanut breeders to identify desired characteristics as well as undesirable traits in segregated varieties and develop new cultivars that take advantage of natural resistance to diseases and other pests, improved shelf life, and increased productivity, among other desirable traits.
“Within five years we should have this tool available to breeders,” said Howard Valentine, executive director of the Peanut Foundation, the research arm of the U.S. peanut industry.
Valentine, in an interview with Farm Press during the Southern Peanut Growers Conference in Panama City Beach, Fla., said the process is underway and when completed will provide farmers new varieties that will improve efficiency by reducing pesticide costs, application costs and trips across the field. He used nematode control as an example.
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“Nematicides currently cost peanut farmers $25 million a year, just for the chemicals,” Valentine said. New varieties, created using marker-assisted breeding techniques, will eliminate most of that expense. “By planting naturally-resistant varieties, nematicide costs go away. Reduced cost of production means an improved bottom line for peanut farmers. Instead of five to seven trips across the field in a season, this technology will reduce the number to as few as two.
“We hope to give breeders tools they need to develop more efficient varieties. Some plant breeders have said that their job is a lot of art and a lot science. This will add another aspect of science that makes sure the breeding process is even more precise.”
When newly-crossed peanut plants come up, marker-assisted breeding techniques allow scientists simply to snip and test a bit of leaf and determine if the desired trait is in that plant or not. The technology will reduce time to release a new variety from about 15 years to about seven years.
The effort is backed by a $6-million research fund from the Peanut Foundation, which is supported by all segments of the peanut industry—growers, shellers and allied entities. The initiative began as a means to reverse a trend of declining U.S. peanut production, noticed over a six-to-seven-year period and discussed during several Foundation meetings.
“We saw peanuts losing acreage to other crops, especially cotton,” Valentine said. Cotton breeders, as well as corn and soybean breeders, have used marker-assisted breeding to improve varieties and improve production efficiency in recent years. Yields improved, pest resistance increased and production costs came down.
Peanuts needed to follow suit.
Genome sequencing is the first step in the process of developing potential for market-assisted breeding, said Valentine. So that became the first objective in a five-year program to identify natural pest resistance, increased shelf life and other desirable traits.
“We’re now in year two,” he said. “We have sequenced the wild peanut cultivar and have sequenced domestic species. Now we’re in the process of assembling the sequenced genes, and we should have that done by early 2015.”
Researchers are also planting some 2,000 segregating varieties to identify those with natural resistance to disease and those with susceptibility to diseases. “Within five years, breeders should have the tools necessary to compare susceptible varieties with resistant ones and determine the differences.”
When asked about the potential for identifying and adding drought tolerance to new varieties, Valentine said that is not beyond the realm of possibility but will be more difficult than to identify and develop traits such as disease resistance.
“We have the potential for drought tolerance,” he said, “but that’s more difficult. Instead of 10 to 15 genes, it probably involves 50. But I’m not saying we can’t do it.”
He added that the scope of the genome sequencing project makes other benefits, such as drought tolerance, more likely. “This is not just a U.S. initiative,” he said. “The project also includes India, China and Brazil. India has varieties with drought tolerance. We may be able to sequence those varieties and identify the drought-tolerant genes. It’s not a simple process.”
He said even developing disease resistance offers significant complexity. “Every time we make a cross we lose some genes,” he said.
But the process is well underway and the potential to improve productivity has already been proven with other crops. The ultimate goal, Valentine said, is to make peanuts more competitive with cotton and other crop options and, ultimately, to increase profit potential for peanut farmers.