The Peanut Foundation has been approved by the American Peanut Council to initiate and coordinate peanut genomics research worldwide with the aim of reducing the cost of production and improving yields and quality.

The project — announced at the recent USA Peanut Congress held in Amelia Island, Fla. — will require $6 million over the next five years to complete.

The ultimate goal of the project is to take eight to 10 years off the normal time for variety development, a process that usually takes at least 15 years. Other goals are to enhance oil quality and essential nutrients and to improve resistance to pre-harvest aflatoxin.

“Basically, there are several approaches to breeding, and this will involve a more natural process,

Says Randy Griggs, executive director of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association, which is committed to helping with the project.

“It offers the opportunity to improve the quality of peanuts through various traits,” says Griggs. “The pressure continues today to grow more with less land and fewer inputs. The key to survival for the peanut industry is improved varieties. We’re acting as an industry, keeping these traits in the public sector where it’s available to all breeders.”

The peanut industry, he says, isn’t large enough for one company to make the investment needed for new variety development. “This project will aim to improve flavor and health benefits and other traits. In deciding to do this, it’s important not just to growers but also to shellers and manufacturers, says Griggs.

Several significant contributions are being made to the project by all segments of the industry, he adds. “A project such as this is especially important considering the declining funds in public research efforts. This will give us an edge in the breeding process.”

During this year’s USA Peanut Congress, Georgia Birdsong of Birdsong Peanuts unveiled a “white paper” describing the project. It’s generally recognized that peanuts are behind other crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton in genomic technology, though scientists and breeders have isolated peanut plants — both wild and cultivated species — that have resistance to diseases such as tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV), leaf spot, CBR and to nematodes.

Will improve varieties

The project will better enable peanut plant breeders to use marker-assistive selective breeding to develop new varieties that have resistance to most if not all of these diseases.

At the recent International Peanut Genome Initiative meeting, 79 institutions in 20 countries helped to develop the strategic plan for the project, which begins. The group agreed that the best institution for sequencing and assembling the peanut genome was BGI in Beijing, China. A contract has been signed for a two-phase project for $2.8 million.  

Companies involved in the project that have already committed to the program include MARS, $1,290,000; J. M. Smuckers, $200,000; and Birdsong Peanuts, $200,000. Several Chinese agricultural academies have committed $480,000. 

Already, $2.2 million of the $6 million has been pledged or secured. A committee has been appointed to organize a drive to secure commitments for the six components of the project.

According to the white paper, one of the biggest challenges for the U.S. peanut industry is the ability to compete with other crops for production. “Most growers today are focused naturally on dollar value per acre and peanuts have often been uncompetitive in regards to yield and production costs as compared to crops such as cotton and corn. 

“As an industry, the best way to compete is to enhance our peanut varieties for disease resistance and yield potential. This can best be done through genomics. We have to maximize yield while minimizing inputs in order to sustain and compete with other crops.

“The industry is committed to peanut consumption growth through marketing efforts to promote the nutritional aspects of peanuts. As we grow consumption, we must grow our yield potential to sustain our industry. Genomics is the key to a sustainable future for peanuts.”

On March 24, 2004, the American Peanut Council’s Board of Directors authorized The Peanut Foundation to organize and coordinate peanut genomic research with the goals of reducing the cost of production and improving yields and quality. It was apparent that the need for this work was urgent.

“Our peanut industry was at least six to 10 years behind the technology for improved variety development compared to corn, cotton, soybeans and other major competing crops. As a result, U.S. peanut production was becoming less competitive with these other major crops,” according to the initiative.

To become more competitive, the Peanut Foundation challenged scientists to engage in peanut research to:

1.) Take 8 to 10 years off the normal time for variety development;

2.) Develop varieties with multiple resistances to TSWV, nematodes, leaf spot, sclerotina, CBR and other diseases;

3.) Increase peanut yielding ability;

4.) Achieve drought tolerance, and improve efficiency of water use to preserve natural resources;

5.) Develop early maturing varieties to avoid off-flavors, reduce growing time and production costs;

6.) Enhance oil quality (i.e. high oleic acid) and essential nutrients (i.e. increased folate);

7.) Enhance resistance to pre-harvest aflatoxin.

Reduce production costs

The successful outcome of this research mandate would reduce production costs to growers, which also will benefit shellers and manufacturers, states the initiative.

“Our university and USDA economists estimated in 2011 that the lack of varieties with superior disease resistance and other improved traits typically costs growers as a whole over $200 million a year or close to $200 per acre.

“These estimated grower losses are a huge target for the whole industry to overcome, but we must work together because shellers and manufacturers also suffer annual losses due to inferior peanuts in the food stream.”

The Peanut Foundation considered three different genomic approaches to develop improved breeding technologies and concluded that Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) would be the best means to deliver the new varieties.

MAS is a breeding method that relies on the use of DNA-markers found in plants to identify hybrids from a cross that have a desired trait before the hybrids are grown in the field, thereby giving breeders a time advantage in variety development.

However, by 2010 peanut breeders only had about 6,000 DNA-markers and few were associated with selectable or measurable traits; whereas soybean and corn scientists had over 100,000 very useful DNA-makers, states the white paper.

The reason soybeans and corn had so many markers is because DNA-markers were easier to discover after the DNA sequence of the soybean and corn genome was known. The same is true for cotton.

Now, nearly every agricultural crop has a genomic research effort aimed at determining the structure and order of genes in its genome. It is generally recognized that the information gained from a crop genome sequence enables quantum leaps in ability to develop and deliver improved varieties in a timely manner.

It became clear, states the initiative, that sequencing the peanut genome was necessary to find a larger inventory of useful DNA-markers to move forward with MAS breeding.

“The framework for organizing those efforts was published in a Strategic Plan covering research goals, priorities, and expected deliverables between 2008 and 2012. 

“With funding from growers, shellers, manufacturers, allies, USDA and universities, the work done under that plan made it possible to develop the building blocks that had to be in place before we were ready to tackle the genome sequence.”

Those “building blocks” included the following:

1.) Development of germplasm (starting material) necessary for sequencing the peanut genome.

• Replacement of lost germplasm in the USDA peanut germplasm collection at Griffin, Ga;

• Discovery of new germplasm resources with resistance to leaf spot and other diseases;

• Development of special breeding populations to find genes for TSWV, leaf spot, pre-harvest aflatoxin contamination (PAC), CBR, root-knot nematode and sclerotinia/white mold resistance; high-oleic peanut oil; and drought tolerance;

• Discovery of drought tolerant peanuts by researches in the U.S. and India.

Develop nematode resistance

2.) Use of DNA markers for high-oleic acid peanut oil and nematode resistance to develop the high O/L variety Tifguard. This achievement was a major breakthrough in peanut genetics because it convinced breeders that MAS could shorten the time for developing a new variety from 12 to 15 years to about five years.

3.) Ability to superimpose DNA-marker maps on individual chromosomes to better locate genes.

The Peanut Genome Project is composed of six research components that are necessary for generating useful tools from the genome sequence for researchers and breeders. U.S. breeders and researchers were assigned lead roles in each research component. A brief description follows:

• Research Component 1: This work involves sequencing the genome to help breeders find genes on each peanut chromosome.  

• Research Component 2: This work enables the identification of thousands of DNA markers in wild and cultivated peanuts. 

• Research Component 3: This work identifies all genes (many genes may govern a trait) in the genetic networks for resistance to diseases like TSWV, tolerance to stresses like drought; and seed quality traits like higher levels of folate. 

• Research Component 4: This work explores new options in genome sequencing technology that may help reduce the PGP budget and still ensure high quality genomic data. New technology already has reduced the budget for research Component 1 from $5.6 million to $2.8 million.

• Research Component 5: This work goes hand in hand with identification of DNA-markers by showing what traits the markers mark. These associations are critical to the identification of genes.

• Research Component 6: This work provides a home for storage and a caretaker for web-based genomic libraries and the Breeder’s Toolbox in Santa Fe, N.M. at the National Center for Genome Resources (NCGR) and other U.S. locations.  

The Peanut Genome Project Budget for the next five years is projected as follows: $1,460,000 (2012); $1,790,000 (2013); $1,510,000 (2014); $620,000 (2015); and $620,000 (2016).

“The cost must be measured against the anticipated returns on investment,” states the white paper.

“Obviously, all desired traits will not be discovered or available at the beginning of the project. They will be discovered and developed over time. But, assuming that all varieties in commercial production had superior disease resistance and desired traits, the savings and increased revenue are estimated to be over $200 million, recurring each year.

“With complete and timely funding of the Peanut Genome Project budget, the consortium of peanut researchers is confident that all Peanut Genome Project Research components will be achieved by the end of 2016.

“As in all research, nothing is a certainty. However, as discoveries are made throughout the project, the results will be disclosed and available to all breeders whether they use conventional, MAS or GMO technology. In summary, all breeding methods will be helped by the discovery of more useful DNA markers.”

phollis@farmpress.com