Some regions of Mexico have lost up to 40% of their pecan crop due to the condition causing the nuts to sprout prematurely on the trees. A disease known as vivipary makes pecans inedible and unmarketable. It started showing up in pecan orchards in Arizona and Texas and worried growers across the United States.
New Mexico State University is leading a group of scientists working to develop the genetic tools and resources to breed climate-adapted pecan trees that can combat vigor and other challenges.
The effort is part of a multi-state research project led by plant molecular biologist and plant pathologist Jennifer Randall in the Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science in NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Randall recently received a continuing grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to fund the project for the next eight years, starting with $3.9 million for the first two years.
“Pecan has a native region that stretches from Oaxaca, Mexico to Illinois, which is a huge geographic range with many different climates,” Randall said. “Our goal is to have trees that are best suited to their regional areas and understand what will grow well in specific areas under climate change, not just today, but 50 years from now.”
As project director, Randall will coordinate a research team that includes faculty from NMSU, Texas A&M University, the University of Arizona, the University of Georgia, the University of Oklahoma, and the California Agriculture and Natural Resources University. The group also includes USDA scientists in Texas, Georgia and Louisiana.
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Randall said the researchers’ main goal is to use pecan genetics to breed pecan trees for climate adaptation. The group will work with Alabama-based HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology to sequence genomes from pecan DNA to analyze climate-cultivar “genetic mismatches” that lead to vigor, timing of maladaptive bud break and dormancy resistance.
“We will generate molecular markers that predict a set of adaptive traits to accelerate breeding for both root and rootstock-related traits,” he said. “These data will enable the development of vital genetic tools necessary to increase our understanding of regional adaptation, promote resource conservation, and select improved cultivars/rootstocks for all major pecan regions.”
Researchers will also examine pecan sap relationships and responses to salinity and drought stress, and investigate biological interactions, including beneficial microbiome interactions and diseases caused by fungal and bacterial organisms and insect damage.
Randall said the group has set up research sites in New Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas, Oklahoma and other regions to collect data from different climate regions.
“Part of the strength of this grant is that we’re trying to look at pecan trees in many different pecan regions, not just in New Mexico,” he said. “We will help our New Mexico producers, but the main goal is to help pecan growers in the United States.
Randall said it could take 30 years before new pecan varieties are introduced to the public. Its purpose is to speed up the process using marker selection for breeding
“What we’re doing is finding the genetics that control the traits, so we can reduce the work and time,” he said. “We will be able to track genes in a new generation without waiting 20 or 30 years.”
At NMSU, Randall will work closely with the project’s principal investigators, including co-director Richard Heerema, Jay Lillywhite, Joe Song, Barbara Chamberlin and Nicole Pietrasiak, as well as collaborator David Dubois.
Randall said NMSU’s Department of Innovative Media Studies and Extension will develop interactive game simulations to present the project’s data and findings in a user-friendly way. Simulations and other educational materials for growers and potential growers are available for free at the project’s website at https://pecantoolbox.nmsu.edu.
Carlos Andres López writes for New Mexico State University Marketing and Communications and can be reached at 575-646-1955, firstname.lastname@example.org..