Mapping the Peanut Motherboard

Auburn Professor Charles Chen was part of the Peanut Genome Consortium — an international team of scientists — that unveiled the map of the cultivated peanut’s entire genome in a five-year research project.

Photo courtesy of Auburn University

Mapping the genetic universe of the peanut is a global, five-year quest by the Peanut Genome Consortium — an international team of scientists that included Auburn University’s Charles Chen.

A genome is a genetic motherboard, from which all variations arise. Understanding the genome allows scientists to pinpoint beneficial genes in cultivated and wild peanuts to breed new varieties. Greater yields, lower production costs, resistance to diseases, improved nutritional values — all these things can be manipulated through the genome.

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“Genetic improvement will now occur more quickly and more efficiently, and farmers will benefit greatly from the gains this research allows, ” says Chen, a plant breeder and geneticist in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science. “This advancement gives scientists around the world a map that can be used to unlock the genetic potential of the peanut plant.”

Chen is also head of Auburn’s peanut breeding and genetics program, which last year produced its first runner peanut variety — AU-NPL 17 — already winning praise for its high yields, resistance to disease, longer shelf life and healthy traits. The seed should be available to U.S. farmers by next year.

Scientists focus on the humble goober in part because it’s a high-protein, well-loved and heavily relied-on staple in diets across the globe. Peanuts are also a key ingredient in ready-to-use therapeutic foods that treat severe acute malnutrition.

The Peanut Foundation launched the International Peanut Genome Initiative in 2012. It’s the largest research project ever funded by the industry. Peanut growers, shellers and manufacturers covered the $6 million cost.

Alabama is the second largest peanut-producing state in the U.S., with 225, 000 acres planted in 2017.

Text by Dave Helms

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