Cowpea, blackeye pea trait improvement in progress

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In October, scientists at the University of California, Riverside received nearly $7 million in funding by way of two grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to continue their work on developing better yielding varieties of cowpea through new genomic resources and marker-assisted breeding.

Cowpea research by UC Riverside has already directly impacted cowpea production in several countries in Africa. The grants support USAID’s agricultural research and production capacity under Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

DNA marker-assisted breeding will be used to expedite conventional breeding to improve cowpea. Specific traits of interest for cowpea improvement include resistance to the drought-associated fungal pathogen Macrophomina phaseolina, tolerance against drought-induced early senescence, and resistance to insects, nematodes and other diseases, along with high yield and maintenance of traits of especial interest to Africa such as seed size, seed coat color and patterns.

“UCR cowpea research goes back more than 30 years,” said Timothy Close, a professor of genetics in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences and the principal investigator of the larger $5 million grant. “The USAID funding through Feed the Future is recognition of the tremendous value that UCR brings to cowpea research and the positive impact it is having on cowpea breeding for African farmers.”

Cowpea originated in Africa. It is known also as southern pea, blackeye pea, crowder pea, lubia, niebe, coupe or frijole. In the United States, cowpea is popular in the south, where it is known as blackeyed peas and other names. California primarily grows the blackeyed dry-grain cowpea type.

Cowpea is a protein-rich legume crop that plays a key role in sustaining food security for people and their livestock. Immensely important in many parts of the world, particularly drought-prone regions, it plays a central role in the diet and economy of hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia.

Philip Roberts, a professor of nematology is the principal investigator on the $2 million USAID grant, explained that the marker-assisted breeding technology for cowpea, developed at UCR, is based on finding genetic variability in cowpea that already exists in nature and that can then be brought into breeding programs.

Roberts said, “The marker-assisted selection allows for the crossing of varieties with complementary sets of favorable traits so that these traits can be stacked up and passed down to progeny.  It’s not about making transgenes and inserting them into plants.  It’s about bringing favorable traits from donors into highly bred cultivars via accelerated cross-breeding.”

Stefano Lonardi, a professor of computer science and engineering and a co-principal investigator on the team, will help process large amounts of data that the research projects will generate.

“We will use a computational method that greatly reduces the possibility of making mistakes and also reduces the cost,” Lonardi said.  “This method makes it possible to mark where in the genome the genes are located that influence, say, drought-tolerance.  And the method also identifies those progeny that carry the alleles, which are forms of genes, for this and other desirable traits.”

UCR has already had much success in releasing new cowpea varieties in California and West Africa, and has a long-term blackeye breeding program funded by the California Dry Bean Advisory Board. The researchers note that the university’s Coachella Valley Agricultural Research Station closely resembles environmental conditions in West Africa.

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