Pipeline, protests hampering wild peanut search

The pipeline extends through a remote area in the Gran Chaco region of southeastern Bolivia where research has shown many wild peanut species live. Indigenous groups living in and near the region have delayed scientists’ collection efforts because of opposition.

Construction of the pipeline and accompanying roads, coupled with newly established farms and ranches, has mobilized the indigenous groups, which oppose further encroachment, including collection of native plants.

Charles Simpson, a peanut breeder with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Stephenville and considered a leading international peanut expert and researcher, has been on 22 collecting expeditions in South America during his career.

Simpson and other fellow scientists made a trip to part of the Gran Chaco region in 1994. He said it's important the region is re-visited "because we want to preserve something that may be lost forever."

The Gran Chaco region is extremely inhospitable, Simpson said, which presented problems during their three-week expedition.

"It was a tough trip," he said. "We had to fend off Africanized bees, and we had to cut, hack and dig our way through the whole trip."

Despite the difficulties, the group came away collecting three new species, "but we still didn't find that one major species we were looking for," Simpson said.

They hope to find the wild peanut known as the B-genome donor to the cultivated peanut, believed to be one of the original parents of today's domesticated peanut. If the B-genome donor can be found, scientists could reconstruct the types of peanuts that humans ate more than 5,000 years ago.

Research from the 1994 expedition indicates the B-genome peanut is most likely to be found in a small, unexplored area in southeastern Bolivia or north/northwest Paraguay.

"If we could find that original B-donor, we very likely could find traits such as drought tolerance, early maturity, high-yield and all kinds of potential in edible quality – all of which would benefit the consumer," Simpson said.

The peanut most consumers eat today was formed when bees crossed two wild species. Researchers say over the centuries farmers and breeders turned off or eliminated many useful genes that were present in the first crosses between wild species.

Meanwhile, David Williams, a plant explorer and ethno-botanist based in Cali, Colombia at the Americas Office of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, has been involved in the permitting process for scientists to re-enter the region.

Another factor contributing to the preservation effort is Bolivia doesn't have a reliable gene bank system.

"If we can preserve the material in the U.S., we can provide it to them when needed," Simpson said.

Duplicate samples would be provided to Bolivian research organizations, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and to the world peanut collection at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics based in Hyderabad, India. It houses nearly 15,000 different types of cultivated and wild groundnuts.

Rising temperatures and other climatic changes pose as another potential threat to the wild peanut population, intensifying scientists' need to conduct additional expeditions.

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