The humble peanut gets little respect, even though it is a nutritional powerhouse.
But that may soon change, as the legume is poised to be a key food in helping feed millions in developing countries.
It is getting help from a worldwide team of geneticists: the International Peanut Genome Initiative, of which UC Davis is a member. The team recently announced the sequencing of the peanut genome.
UC Davis geneticist Lutz Froenicke said the sequence will be made available to researchers and plant breeders across the globe, who in turn are expected to use the information to grow more productive and resilient peanut plants.
“Because of the peanut’s nutritional density, stability and digestibility, it has become a very important tool,” said Froenicke. “It’s just one example of the urgent need to continually improve crops to keep feeding the world’s growing population, especially with shrinking farmland.”
Protein rich, peanut or peanut butter is the base for vitamin-rich pastes that are among the so-called “therapeutic foods” being used by aid groups like UNICEF and the United Nation World Food Program to treat malnutrition across the globe.
In developing countries malnutrition remains a big health issue. Almost half of the under-age-5 child deaths worldwide are tied to malnutrition, according to the World Health Organization.
Although a profitable row crop in the U.S. South, the peanut – also known as the groundnut or the Bambara nut – is crucial to the diets and livelihood of millions of small farmers in Asia and Africa, yet in many places yields have been low.
Drought, limited technology and pests are to blame.
Almost all of the world’s cultivated peanuts are derived from a single plant that existed 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. As a result, there is little diversity among cultivated peanuts, resulting in few disease resistances.
The genome sequence information will allow breeders the opportunity to efficiently mix desirable traits from wild peanut species with currently farmed species. It will also give breeders the opportunity to effectively avoid the undesirable traits that are part of the genetic makeup of the wild species.
Without the sequencing information, it would take years for the peanut to be bred in a way that would allow for greater yields and pest resistance, Froenicke said. “Slow progress would likely make the peanut crop less and less attractive for farmers – finally leading to things like soy Snickers bars.”
Genome sequencing entails figuring out the order of an organism’s DNA. Large, sleek machines in places like the modern Genomic Sciences building at UC Davis have been busy day and night reading the peanut’s genetic structure.
Introducing changes into the peanut plant is no small matter, said Richard Michelmore, director of the Genome Center at UC Davis.
“When you grow the same crop on large acreage, sooner or later a pathogen comes along and overcomes its resistance, and wipes it out,” said Michelmore.
“Plant breeders are continually trying to counter these pathogens. It’s a game that goes on and on: Abreeder will do something to increase resistance and then a pathogen comes along and forces a breeder to respond again,” he said.
“What you want is a stable food supply,” Michelmore said. “With new technology we can study the variations in the pathogen and we can anticipate what the pathogen does.”
He likened the challenges to what vaccine makers face when a vaccine is being made in advance of influenza. “Each year it’s a little different. You have to make adjustments. You have to try and estimate what will cause a flu epidemic. We can do the same thing with plant diseases,” he said.
“However, for a plant like the peanut this cannot yet be done on an annual basis,” Michelmore said. “It takes five to 10 years. That’s where we are going right now.”
He said the evolution in genetic sequencing technology has increased exponentially. “The challenge was not generating the raw data, but analyzing it,” said Michelmore.
Once the analysis capacity catches up to the data generation power of current sequencing technology, the benefits afforded breeders will likely dwarf what is available today, he said.
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.