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Alabama researchers focus on peanut genome to improve harvests

Peanuts are an important part of rural Alabama’s economy, and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is doing innovative research aimed at producing healthier harvests.

Scientists at the Huntsville facility have partnered with the state’s farmers and agricultural industry leaders on genomic projects involving peanuts.

The work involves an integrated approach, with researchers using input from growers to help chart their path. Peanut genomes determine characteristics such as how well they roast, fill their shells and resist drought and disease.

Alabama researchers aren’t looking to create genetically modified peanuts. They just want to use genetic information to speed up natural selection and create crops that are more resistant to drought and disease, and therefore need to be sprayed less frequently, saving farmers money and reducing environmental impact. (contributed)

Among the most impactful results of the researchers’ work so far is the creation of a set of genetic markers that are used by breeders of peanut plants to develop crop varieties with desirable traits, said Josh Clevenger, HudsonAlpha faculty investigator.

Such markers are helpful to breeders, who are mainly at universities, including Auburn University, because they accelerate the process of developing new plant varieties.

“If we have a molecular marker we can select in the lab, we can speed up the breeding process considerably, going from potentially 10 years to three years,” Clevenger said.

And how does that help peanut farmers? Clevenger points to southeastern Alabama — the center of the state’s peanut production — and its warm, humid weather as an example.

“The Wiregrass has the perfect climate for fungal diseases, and farmers have to spray a lot for that,” he said. “If farmers have peanut plants from a line that within its genetics has a particular set of genes that help it be resistant to those fungal diseases, then they only have to spray it three times, for instance, instead of seven or eight times.”

Important crop

Alabama ranks No. 2 in the U.S. for peanut production, behind Georgia. The industry contributes more than $210 million annually to the state economy and accounts for 3,000 jobs.

Peanuts are grown in 37 of Alabama’s 67 counties, including many rural counties. The top 10 peanut producing counties are Houston, Baldwin, Geneva, Escambia, Henry, Monroe, Coffee, Dale, Covington and Mobile.

The annual National Peanut Festival in Dothan attests to the crop’s importance to Alabama agriculture. The state is the nation’s No. 2 producer of peanuts after Georgia. (National Peanut Festival)

“HudsonAlpha has a leadership role in plant genomics, and its scientists collaborate with researchers in Alabama and elsewhere to make discoveries that can lead to crop improvement,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “This work has significant implications for the future of agriculture in our state.”

Research projects like those at HudsonAlpha are especially important to peanut farmers, since the selling price of peanuts is relatively stable but the cost of producing them is rising.

“The cost of inputs — the fertilizers, chemicals, tractors, combines and all the other equipment it takes to grow and produce and harvest — keeps climbing, so the only way a farmer can stay profitable is to increase yields,” said Jacob Davis, executive director of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association.

The development of new plant varieties that are more resistant to drought and disease and produce more peanuts per acre will help boost those yields, he said.

Meanwhile, if farmers are able to use less inputs, such as pesticides and fungicides, that helps their bottom line as well. It’s also more environmentally friendly.

One spray costs anywhere from $10 to $40 an acre, Davis said. If farmers don’t have to make as many applications, that helps them to be more profitable.

“The goal is to develop varieties that are not susceptible to the pests and diseases that plague the peanut crop, so you don’t have to spray as much, and maybe one day not at all,” he said.

Davis added that peanuts are non-GMO (genetically modified organisms).

“We don’t want that,” he said. “We’re not going to take DNA out of a soybean and put it into a peanut. What we’re talking about here is just natural selection, and just trying to speed up that natural selection process.”

HudsonAlpha faculty investigator Josh Clevenger is leading a team of scientists that has partnered with Alabama farmers and agricultural industry leaders on genomic research projects involving peanuts. (HudsonAlpha)

Research role

While all of Clevenger’s work happens in a lab and at greenhouse facilities, he makes it a priority to regularly interact with grower groups, where he speaks about his work and learns what farmers are experiencing in their fields.

“We rely on grant programs that are led and funded by the growers,” he said. “They are very supportive of our work.”

He recently traveled to the Wiregrass and visited with peanut farmers who told him that fungicides represent 30% of their input in growing crops. And that’s a number he hopes his research will help reduce.

Clevenger has been on staff at HudsonAlpha for two years, but his work with peanuts stretches back eight years. His previous job with candy conglomerate Mars Inc. took him around the globe designing and deploying genetic improvement projects involving peanuts.

“Mars buys peanuts from all over the world to put in M&Ms, Snickers and other products. In each place, there are challenges farmers face, with different levels of seriousness and different levels of agronomic expertise,” he said. “I learned through that, that when we talk about breeding and improving varieties for growers, they are the stakeholders.”

Clevenger’s role with Mars included projects in Australia, Africa, South America and elsewhere, and his perspective on being a scientist is colored by that experience.

“It really allowed me to understand the large gap between us as geneticists, and actual stakeholders, who are the people farming and making a living growing seed,” he said. “My entire role in my research is to support them.”

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.