Teaming Up For A Better Peanut

A collaboration between Mars And HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology will tackle drought tolerance and aflatoxin. 

Partnering together, two groups hope to tackle two of the biggest threats to the peanut industry.

In collaboration with Mars, HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator Josh Clevenger will work on two top problems in peanuts: aflatoxin and drought tolerance.

HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology—a nonprofit institute dedicated to developing and applying scientific advances to health, agriculture, learning and commercialization—recently announced a collaboration with Mars Wrigley, a segment within Mars, and maker of some of the world’s most beloved treats and snacks. 

With the support of Mars, HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator Josh Clevenger, who made significant contributions to the peanut genomics initiative, will work to create more sustainable crops that use less water and fewer pesticides, promoting regenerative agriculture and safer, more durable harvesting solutions.

Solving Challenges Through Collaboration

In the new collaborative project, Clevenger and the team at Mars aim to tackle two related crop issues: aflatoxins and drought tolerance. Aflatoxins are a group of toxins produced by the fungi Aspergillus, found in soil. Aflatoxins can contaminate agricultural crops such as peanuts, tree nuts, corn and grains such as wheat. 

“Teamwork and collaboration are two of the pillars upon which HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology were founded, and they are still integral to our success,” Clevenger says. “We are looking forward to partnering with Mars to help solve two major peanut challenges at once, which could have a substantial impact on food security and help protect the livelihoods of the food producers we rely on.”

In addition to the research with HudsonAlpha, Mars is taking a multi-systems approach to managing aflatoxins within the global food supply chain, including through research at the Mars Global Food Safety Center and with leading partners around the world.

“Mars is partnering with the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in support of the world we want tomorrow, which is a world with a healthy planet and thriving people. We at Mars want to share groundbreaking solutions for crops that use less water and pesticides, eradicating aflatoxin more quickly and efficiently, and in a way that mutually benefits everyone involved,” says Victor Nwosu, Senior Fellow, Mars Wrigley.

Josh Clevenger, center, is pictured in a peanut test plot with members of his lab (from left) Katherine Sanmartin, Courtney Valerio, Jason Bunn, Walid Korani.
Photo by Amy Weiser (

Benefitting Economies And Health

Grown on millions of acres of land throughout tropical and subtropical regions worldwide, peanuts attract heavy demand and serve as an important protein source in many diets. A successful peanut plant harvest can be threatened by many factors including environmental conditions, pests, fungi and diseases.  

Creating peanuts that are less susceptible to aflatoxin could benefit both the economy and human health. Some markets, such as Great Britain, have strict regulations governing aflatoxin levels in crops. Crops not meeting those standards often sit at ports and are eventually destroyed, causing substantial losses in profit for peanut farmers and contributing to food waste.

Peanut varieties that are drought tolerant and aflatoxin resistant and carry other beneficial traits, such as high yield, may be deployed for commercial use. These new lines would be released publicly and deposited in the U.S. Department of Agriculture germplasm collection for dispersal, which freely distributes seed requests to any country in the world. 

Speeding Up Breeding Efforts

Aspergillus fungi produce aflatoxins when conditions are hot and dry. Like many global crops, peanuts are often grown using dry-land production. During times of drought, peanuts become stressed, leading to exacerbated aflatoxin production. Increasing drought tolerance in peanuts could mitigate aflatoxin production and contamination.

Quantitative traits, such as drought tolerance and disease resistance, are controlled by small regions of DNA called quantitative trait loci (QTL). Larger DNA segments that are close to the QTL can be used as markers to determine if a plant inherited the desired trait. 

Faculty tour a new greenhouse facility being built on the HudsonAlpha campus, whose mission is to develop and apply scientific advances to health, agriculture, learning and commercialization.

Clevenger and his team are using genomics, as well as new computational tools and breeding methods, to identify QTLs that confer drought tolerance. These will be introduced into agronomically viable peanut lines using a technique known as marker-assisted speed breeding. 

HudsonAlpha will use their 1,600-square-foot indoor facility for year-round production. Two rooms are focused specifically on peanut molecular breeding. Using accelerated growth conditions and continuous light, at least three, and up to four, generations of peanuts can be accomplished in one year, greatly speeding up the process of backcross mediated trait integration. 

The new lines will be field tested under drought conditions in Tifton, Georgia, in collaboration with the University of Georgia’s Peggy Ozias-Akins, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Supervisory Research Geneticist Corley Holbrook. PG

For more information about HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, please visit 

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