A New Era In Peanut Breeding

The Peanut Genomics Initiative has rallied the industry around the goal of making peanuts more competitive.

By Amanda Huber

In the grand scheme of things, peanuts are behind, way behind. The lack of disease resistance weighs heavily on yield potential, and even though load after load of peanuts may be coming in this season, because of production costs, peanuts are simply not as competitive when compared to other crops.

Eight years ago, the industry decided to do something about it, and the American Peanut Council, which represents all segments of the peanut industry, authorized The Peanut Foundation to organize and coordinate peanut genomic research with the goals of reducing the costs of production and improving peanut yield and quality.

Selecting An Approach

Genomics is the identification and study of gene sequences in the DNA of organisms, and this was determined as the best way to improve the competitiveness of peanut by enhancing varieties for disease resistance and yield potential. To develop better varieties through improved breeding technologies, The Peanut Foundation considered three different genomic approaches: 1. genetic modification (GMO); 2. marker assisted selection; and, 3. mutation breeding.

After researching each approach, the Foundation’s technical group determined that Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) would be the best first step to deliver new varieties, as there were drawbacks to both GMO and mutation breeding until the MAS portion was completed.

A molecular marker is a position within the genome and is located relative to other markers. But the value in breeding is not in knowing which marker is associated to another marker, but which marker is associated to a particular trait of interest.

Marker Assisted Selection is a breeding method that relies on the use of DNA molecular markers found in plants to identify genes from a peanut variety that confer a desired trait. This gives breeders a time advantage in variety development.

Reducing Selection Time

The selection of the MAS approach was in 2010, and at the time peanut breeders had only about 6,000 DNAmarkers identified and few of those were associated with selectable or measurable traits. For comparison, soybean and corn scientists had more than 100,000 useful DNA-markers, and the reason those researchers had so many markers is because DNA-markers were easier to discover after the DNA sequence of the soybean and corn genome was known.

To find the useful DNA-markers in peanuts to be able to move forward with MAS breeding, it would be necessary to sequence the peanut genome.

George Birdsong, a member of The Peanut Foundation’s Peanut Genomics Initiative, says sequencing the peanut genome and identifying genetic traits will help speed up the natural development of new peanut varieties with greater disease resistance and improved quality traits.

“When all these improvements are implemented, the industry will save possibly hundreds of millions of dollars each year in production and quality costs in addition to significantly shortening the time to get new varieties into the marketplace,” Birdsong says.

Finding Industry Support

A framework for organizing efforts to sequence the peanut genome was developed through The Peanut Foundation, but like everything else, nothing comes for free. It would cost money, but all segments of the industry agreed that it would be an investment well worth making.

At that time, fundraising for the Peanut Genomics Initiative Project began in earnest, and The Peanut Foundation recently announced that significant progress has been made toward funding the project, which is estimated to cost $6 million over the next five years. The industry determined that the best way to fund this initiative was to divide the cost equally among the three industry segments – growers, shellers/buying points and manufacturers/ allied.

Peanut producers will provide funding through the National Peanut Board, says Birdsong.

“I’m pleased to announce that the growers, through the National Peanut Board, have proposed to provide up to $400,000 per year for a total of $2 million over the course of the project, assuming all milestones are met, and the USDA approves the NPB budget annually,” he says.

“We see the importance of being progressive in farming, and this type of work takes collaboration across all segments,” says Michael Davis, NPB research committee chairman.

Beneficial To All Segments

The shelling segment, through the three area sheller associations – the American Peanut Shellers Association, Virginia Carolina Peanut Shellers Association and Southwest Peanut Shellers Association – have also agreed to raise $400,000 per year, for a total of $2 million over the five-year period. This amount will come from the shelling/buying point segments.

“Shellers see the need to reduce production costs and improve quality. This project is a major step in that direction,” says Joe West, President of the American Peanut Shellers Association.

Several manufacturers have already made significant commitments and others will be asked for financial support during the coming months.

Moving Forward

“The work is moving on target and with this new support from the growers, shellers and manufacturers, it will allow us to stay on track through 2013 and hopefully beyond,” says Howard Valentine, executive director of The Peanut Foundation, who recently attended a Legume Genomic and Genetic Conference in India and heard from other legume groups about their successes.

“Their data will be fed into the Legume Information System (LIS) as will ours. Having this data all in one computer resource will allow us to access many of the disease-preventing gene markers in peanuts that have already been found in these other legumes.”

Valentine says, “The Peanut Foundation is extremely appreciative of the support of the industry so far, which will allow us to advance on developing disease and quality gene markers that will assist breeders in developing new varieties more quickly and with more resistance to diseases to reduce production costs and increase yield for our growers.” PG


Improving Peanut Breeding

Barry Tillman, University of Florida peanut breeder and professor in agronomy, explains that breeders are currently unable to evaluate thousands of individual plants for their reaction to diseases such as white mold or spotted wilt.

“Genetic markers could allow them to select new plants for disease resistance in early stages of the breeding process where such testing is currently impractical,” he says. “Although much work remains to be done, these tools should eventually give peanut breeders the ability to improve the entire breeding process and to deliver new peanut varieties faster.”

Two traits peanut breeders have markers for are nematode resistance and high oleic oil chemistry.

“Those are two relatively simple traits, but other traits, particularly disease resistance, are much more complex,” says Peggy Ozias-Akins, University of Georgia professor of horticulture, who in 2011 was elected fellow of The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Knowing the sequence of the peanut genome will allow for the comparison of a lot of different genotypes of peanut from the germplasm collection to modern cultivars and really hone in on what variation is there, and it will allow us to develop more molecular markers,” Ozias-Akins says. PG

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