Pipeline protests thwart wild peanut species search

A new natural gas pipeline running through Bolivia to southeast Brazil has prevented a group of scientists from having the opportunity to discover one of the most sought-after wild peanut species — one that could contain the genes to develop a peanut that is high-yielding, has early maturity, and/or boasts superior taste.

The pipeline extends through a remote area in the Gran Chaco region of southeastern Bolivia where research has shown many wild peanut species grow. 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, have mobilized the indigenous groups who oppose further encroachment, including collection of native plants.

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

Simpson and other 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.

“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 with 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 Bolivia or in Paraguay.

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