For decades, scientists have used genetics and molecular markers to advance research and plant breeding of agricultural crops. As a result, yields have increased, water and nutrient efficiency has improved, and plants can better defend against disease and pests.

Scientists recently have begun applying these same technologies to pecan breeding and research. Several institutions, including the Noble Foundation, have started examining the genetic potential of pecans. The use of genetics will help researchers understand how pecan trees function and potentially reveal solutions to production problems such as alternate bearing, flowering, and disease and insect resistance.

“With the aid of these tools, breeding programs will be able to shorten the time required to evaluate the product of our crossbreeding activities before they are released,” said Charles Rohla, Ph.D., Noble Foundation pecan specialist and assistant professor. “This will be a remarkable leap forward for pecan researchers and producers.”

The Noble Foundation plans to use genetic resources to develop pecan cultivars that will be disease and insect resistant, have more uniform yearly production, and be more water and nutrient efficient.

Traditionally, pecan breeding is a long-term effort, according to Rohla. After a cross is made—two or varieties are crossbred, the nut is grown and allowed to fruit, which may take eight to 12 years. Evaluations are made following fruiting. If the outcome of the breeding is worthy, it is grafted into a replicated trial to compare it to other crosses and known cultivars. Normally, a new cultivar is evaluated for at least 12 to 15 years before it is considered for release. However, in reality, most cultivars are evaluated for a much longer period.

The use of molecular markers in grasses and legumes has reduced the time required to release new varieties by half when compared to the length of time required for traditional breeding.

The focus of the program will not be on development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in pecans, but to better understand the diverse genetic potential of pecans that can be used for improvement of the species.

“These genetic tools will help revolutionize pecan breeding,” Rohla said. “We will be able to breed stronger, healthier pecans in less time. That’s good for breeders, producers and consumers.”