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 in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, 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 yield under heat and drought stress.
Feed the Future is the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative. With a focus on smallholder farmers, particularly women, Feed the Future supports partner countries in developing their agriculture sectors to spur economic growth and trade that increase incomes and reduce hunger, poverty and undernutrition.
The common bean is a staple food in the diet 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.
To help address these challenges, researchers are hoping to develop bean plants that can produce higher yields under such harsh conditions, with an eye toward winning acceptance of these new varieties among women, families and smallholder farmers.
Other scientists partnering in the project are co-principal investigators Kathleen Brown, professor of plant stress biology, Penn State; Steve Beebe, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture; Magalhaes Miguel, of the Agricultural Research Institute of Mozambique; Phil McClean, of North Dakota State University; Jill Findeis, of the University of Missouri; James Beaver, of the University of Puerto Rico; Jeffrey White, Timothy Porch and Phil Miklas, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service; and Juan Carlos Rosas, of Zamorano University in Honduras.
"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 present opportunities to accelerate progress by targeting specific traits and integrating them into breeding programs."
To screen germplasm, Lynch's team will initiate a coordinated network of trials to evaluate bean abiotic stress in the United States, Mozambique, Colombia and Honduras. The breeding strategy will focus on specific traits that improve yield under heat and drought stress, combined with some supportive traits, such as root rot resistance and tolerance to low soil phosphorous.
"Drought and heat often are present together in key production environments, and many of the traits of interest are important for tolerance to both stresses," Lynch said. "The coordinated development of stress-tolerant germplasm from breeding programs across three continents will enable substantial synergies, especially in the application of tools, results and lines across regions and stresses."
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 production and consumption trait preferences among women and families, identify barriers to adoption and involve growers in varietal selection with new bean lines at village sites.
"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.
The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate-Resilient Beans, one of 10 new Innovation Labs announced Oct. 30 by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, is part of the Feed the Future initiative's Food Security Innovation Center. The center was launched in 2012 to support innovative research aimed at transforming agricultural production systems through "sustainable intensification" -- or producing more food in an environmentally sensitive manner -- ensuring access to nutritious and safe foods, creating enabling and supportive policies, and addressing the emerging challenges of climate change and natural resource scarcity.
"Throughout history, our greatest development advances have come from introducing safe, proven and appropriate technologies to the world's most vulnerable people," Shah said. "Building upon a strong history of research collaboration, these new Feed the Future Innovation Labs will draw on the very best research, extension and education strengths of the U.S. and global university community to improve nutrition, end hunger and help eradicate extreme poverty around the world."