There’s reason to get excited about the successful discovery of the peanut’s genetic code.
The planet’s population is predicted to reach nine billion by 2050. The need for more efficient agricultural practices and sustainably-sourced foods becomes more vital every day. The peanut genomics map could not have come at a better time.
Peanuts are one of the world’s most popular foods, easy to spot in cuisines in Asia, across the ocean in Africa, and in many countries in between. They are also one of the most nutrient-dense food sources, packed with protein (7 grams per ounce) and a good source of fiber, good fats and over 30 essential vitamins and minerals. A map of their genetic makeup may lead to a more perfect peanut with enhanced growth potential and nutrient profile to feed a burgeoning global population.
Scientists now know the peanut’s origin is in South America in the foothills of the Andes Mountains between northeastern Argentina and southeastern Bolivia.
How can scientists be so sure about the peanut’s ancient origins? The key lies in understanding the peanut’s DNA sequence, unlocked recently for the first time by scientists who were working with the International Peanut Genome Initiative (IPGI), an intensive five-year project dedicated to mapping the genetic code of the peanut.
As part of working with the team of international scientists with IPGI, researchers at the University of Georgia discovered that a wild plant from Bolivia is “99.96% identical. to the cultivated peanut farmers grow today.
This one discovery marks what is likely the first step in a bright future for people who love to eat peanuts and for the farmers who love to grow them.
Because the IPGI mapped the genetic code of the peanut, scientists now have a huge roadmap for finding beneficial genes in peanuts and then naturally breeding desired genes to create new peanut varieties.
In fact, scientists now have the capability to improve virtually anything that is genetically determined by the peanut plant—all without using GMO techniques. This will lead to improved nutrition, better flavor, improved food safety, lowers costs and better disease resistance for farmers.
A Promising Future
David Bertioli, an IPGI plant geneticist of the Universidade de Brasilia, said in the Scientific American,  “With a better understanding of the peanut genome, researchers will be better able to identify markers that determine their resistance to certain diseases and weather conditions. This information will allow them to design of genetic variants that are more pest- and drought-resistant as well as more nutritious—a major breakthrough for regions such as Africa, where malnutrition is a severe problem and peanuts are an important source of vegetable protein,” Bertioli said.
From a sustainability perspective, peanuts are far more water-efficient than other nuts. It takes 3.2 gallons of water to produce one ounce of peanuts, versus roughly 28.7 gallons of water to grow one ounce of almonds. Peanuts have a small water footprint because of their specific growing regions (over half of peanut fields rely on rain water only), small structure and underground growth.
Peanut farmers are making continuous improvements in water conservation and farmland development. Unlocking the genetic code will allow peanut scientists to develop varieties for drought-tolerance, and much of this research is already underway. Expect peanut farmers to grow more peanuts on the same amount of land, thereby creating efficiency and sustainability for decades to come.
Through a clear understanding of its DNA, scientists believe the peanuts of tomorrow can be more nutritious, hardier, and more drought-resistant around the world in increasingly useful ways.