Texas A&M Fast-tracks Superior Cultivars Using Genetic and Physical Markers

Conventional breeding is a long and laborious process that takes years to bring a new seed to market. That’s why researchers at Texas A&M AgriLife (TAMU) are fast-tracking the breeding process with genomics (targeting genes at the DNA/molecular level) and phenomics (identifying physical characteristics of the plant). Their aim is to resist disease and environmental pressures by screening for genetic and phenomic markers with advantageous characteristics to allow for the quicker development of new varieties.

“Funding from the National Peanut Board has been important to the Texas A&M AgriLife Peanut Breeding and Genetics Program,” said Mark Burow, Ph.D., Lubbock-based peanut genetics specialist with the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at TAMU. “NPB funding supports our work on drought and heat tolerance, disease and pest resistance, and improved edible seed quality- namely early maturity and high oleic peanut. It also contributes to using results of the Peanut Genome Initiative in the breeding effort, and to work by Charles Simpson, Professor Emeritus at Stephenville, on incorporating traits from wild species into new varieties,” said Burow.

Research tech Daniel Gonzales conducting UAS data collection training.

The work done through TAMU has also evolved to include identifying traits using new sensor technologies. Led by Dr. John Cason, peanut breeder stationed in Stephenville, the team uses unmanned aerial aircraft (UAS) that look for physical traits that in some cases can’t be seen with the human eye. The UAS allows for the collection of large amounts of data that can be analyzed for traits such as drought tolerance, canopy cover, vegetation index (VI), disease resistance and canopy height. Ordinarily this data would have to be collected by hand, but the UAS allows for data collection that is more accurate and exceptionally faster.

By combining markers based on genomic and phenomic traits, researchers are homing in on breeding lines that espouse the desired traits so that they can breed superior varieties more quickly. “Breeding is all about numbers, so the more germplasm we can look at means the faster progress can be made” said Cason. 

Their efforts have already yielded Tamrun OL18L, a high-yielding, early-maturing runner; AG-18, a high-yielding, high-grading, high-oleic runner variety; and Schubert, a high-oleic Spanish-type variety which has increased yield and grade potential and some early maturity. Now their research is focused on screening for specific markers and genes that will further enhance new varieties.

Currently, they are screening for markers that can promote early maturity to improve flavor and yield. They are also identifying markers that affect the plant architecture to aid in water use efficiency and markers for resistance to root-knot nematodes, leaf spots, and pod rot. While this research looks at physical and genetic markers, it does not involve genetic engineering or modification. 

Orthomosaic images (created from multiple images to ensure accuracy) generated from UAS imagery (left) and canopy cover (%) within each grid calculated from the orthomosaic image (right).

Instead, it is allowing researchers to leverage this data so that desired traits are selectively bred into new varieties, and less desirable genetic material bred out. These processes save time and energy spent on addressing plant pressures, and instead gives them the ability to address plant yields and crop grades. That’s where the greatest impact will be made on farmer profits.

“The quicker the breeding program can pyramid drought resistance,  early maturity, and multiple disease resistances, the sooner that growers will benefit by way of higher yield and reduced input costs associated with nutritious heart-healthy peanuts,” said retired peanut breeder Michael Baring, breeder in College Station.

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