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Building Better Beans

Story-beans.jpgNeil Palmer Photography

The common bean is a staple food in the diets of millions of people around the globe. But environmental stresses such as heat, drought, and low soil fertility—often made worse by climate change—limit yields in many regions of the developing world, contributing to hunger and poverty.

With support from a $5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, an international team led by Jonathan Lynch, professor of plant nutrition, will establish the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate-Resilient Beans. The project will employ novel techniques to accelerate breeding programs for the common bean aimed at conferring traits that can increase yields under heat and drought stress.

"Past breeding for stress-tolerant beans has relied primarily on yield trials, which are imprecise and costly and sample only a limited range of environmental and management options," Lynch said. "Recent developments in crop physiology, phenomics, genomics, and technology dissemination may help to accelerate progress by targeting specific traits and integrating them into breeding programs."

Lynch noted that novel phenotyping methods will be used to characterize bean germplasm for useful traits, identify new sources of tolerance, and guide selection programs. "For drought tolerance, we will focus on root traits that improve water uptake from drying soil and more efficient grain filling under stress," he said. "For heat tolerance, we will focus on improving pollen function and grain filling."

The researchers will deploy phenotypic data and next-generation genomics tools, including the recently completed sequence of the bean genome, to identify markers and candidate genes conferring useful traits, Lynch explained.

To increase acceptance of new lines of beans generated by the breeding program, the research team will analyze bean trait preferences among women and families, identify barriers to adoption, and involve growers in varietal selection.

"We will develop and pilot educational materials to increase women’s knowledge of common bean varieties and legume-based farming systems that they can employ to increase family and household resilience under climate change," Lynch said.

Chuck Gill