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Source: HudsonAlpha Institute news release

March is National Peanut Month and Americans are nuts about peanuts, consuming about 7.6 pounds of peanuts per person each year. Peanuts, which are actually a member of the bean (legume) family, are a major cash crop in the southeastern United States, growing throughout Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, and the Carolinas.

edLike many agricultural crops, successful peanut harvests are being threatened by pressure from the global spread of plant diseases and pests, diminishing natural resources, climate change, and the growing global population.

Here in Huntsville, Alabama, researchers at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology are hard at work developing peanut varieties that are disease- and drought-resistant and others that can produce an outstanding yield each season without the need for fertilizers or excess water.

To do this, researchers study the peanut genome to try to identify genes that confer beneficial traits, like disease or drought resistance. HudsonAlpha researchers, along with other collaborators, have a long history with the peanut genome, having sequenced the first tetraploid peanut reference genome. The reference genome gives researchers a point of comparison when looking for genes in the peanut genome.

New research collaboration
HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator, Josh Clevenger, PhD, recently entered a new collaboration with Mars Wrigley, maker of some of the world's most beloved treats and snacks. With the support of Mars Wrigley, Clevenger will work to create drought-tolerant, low aflatoxin peanuts, resulting in safer and more durable harvesting solutions.

Aflatoxins are a group of carcinogenic, liver-damaging toxins produced by the fungi Aspergillus that can contaminate agricultural crops like peanuts, tree nuts, maize, and grains. Children are especially susceptible to aflatoxin exposure, suffering from stunted growth, delayed development, liver damage, and even liver cancer.

Many countries have regulations governing aflatoxin levels in crops. In fact, harvested crops having aflatoxins over the allowable limit are often destroyed, causing major losses in profit for peanut farmers. Creating peanuts that are less susceptible to aflatoxin would benefit both the economy and human health.

Clevenger and the team at Mars Wrigley aim to create low-aflatoxin peanuts by addressing a related issue, drought stress. Aspergillus fungi produce aflatoxins when conditions are hot and dry. During times of drought, peanuts become stressed leading to exacerbated aflatoxin production. Increasing drought tolerance in peanuts could mitigate aflatoxin production and contamination.

Clevenger and his team are using genomics and computational tools to identify genetic markers that give peanuts drought tolerance, which will eliminate stress conditions that activate aflatoxin production.

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