Traits for increased yield, disease resistance, and better grades, among other benefits, already exist in the DNA of plant material. The challenge to peanut breeders is to identify those traits in wild varieties and incorporate them into varieties that perform in cultivated field conditions.
Genetic technology, including identifying genetic markers for specific traits, is making that chore a bit more manageable, say USDA and university genetics researchers.
Corley Holbrook, USDA-ARS, Tifton, Ga., and Scott Jackson, University of Georgia professor of plant genomics, discussed the future of plant breeding at the recent annual Southern Peanut Growers Conference at Calloway Gardens, Ga.
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“I got to see hundreds of genes in plant material at Calloway Gardens,” Holbrook said during a panel discussion on the future of plant breeding. He said Calloway Gardens’ specimens, not necessarily peanuts, included traits for drought tolerance, disease resistance and other characteristics important to plant breeders. Finding similar traits for peanuts, using marker assisted breeding techniques, will prove crucial to maintaining and improving peanut yield and grade, and increasing the plant’s ability to survive during stressful climate conditions, insect infestations and disease outbreaks.
Much of the ongoing research is part of the Peanut Genomics Initiative, a grower-supported project. “We’ve seen significant advances over the last few years,” he says.
“We’re using a few markers already,” said Jackson, a UGA Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. “If we have a DNA marker for a specific trait, we can accelerate the process for breeding, and save a lot of time and money.”
Jackson says a research goal is to keep making yield increases and to protect those yield advances.
Peanut breeders are looking at a collection of wild peanut cultivars housed at the UGA Griffin, Ga., research facility. “We are beginning to identify traits from the wild varieties and put them in the field,” Jackson says. “These plants don’t look very good — they’re wild varieties and don’t look like peanuts. We hope to transfer desirable traits into better varieties using molecular markers.”
He also touched on genetically modified peanuts. Currently, no GMO peanut lines are available.
“The issue is that peanuts are a direct food, unlike cotton or other GMO crops,” he says. “The roadblock will be consumers to accept a food that is classified as GMO.”
New technology may help. A process that allows breeders to “edit” genes, instead of adding material from a different species, may be useful. “For instance, we may be able to edit out the allergen gene. We’re still uncertain how that will be regulated. Will that process also be classified as GMO?”
“Markers are already available,” Holbrook says, “and we will identify more traits in the next 10 years. We’re still looking for yield and grade. I think we will find markers for yield. We have markers for several diseases, and we hope to find ‘near’ immunity to white mold, etc.”
Currently, peanut breeders estimate a 12- to 15-year process to get a new variety into a farmer’s field. “With marker assisted breeding, we can do it faster,” Holbrook says. “We got high oleic into a variety in 26 months, but we still had to do trials and seed increase.”
Scott Monfort, University of Georgia Extension peanut agronomist, said speeding up the breeding process would be “phenomenal. But we work day-to-day with drought and climate change.” Dealing with short-range issues, he said, is also important. “We need as many options as we can get as soon as possible.”