If there is one thing biology taught us in the last decade, it’s that diversity is king. Plant and animal genome sequencing opens a new window to biological diversity and the vast resources it holds. A team of researchers from the USDA Agricultural Research Service made great strides this year to identify, catalog, and sequence over 400 different bean plants, and put them into a lending library for the world, thanks to funding from the USAID Feed the Future program. Working with their partners in Sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers are finding and developing bean genes to grow locally adapted beans that will not only grow better in harsh African environments, but will also grow a more nutritious, higher quality food. The work will enhance African food and economic security; and play a role in doing the same in the US and other parts of the world.
The researchers collected 428 different Andean bean varieties from around the world, and genotyped them to learn what genetic resources each offers, like efficient growth in poor soil, drought and heat tolerance, disease resistance, or enhanced nutritional or cooking qualities. Part of making the Bean Library, or Andean Diversity Panel (ADP) as the researchers call it, was to grow more seeds, and continue to grow them so seeds can be shared with the global research community. This work will need to continue to keep the ADP stocked with bean seeds for research. But the library is really a by-product of the researcher’s main goal, which is to increase common bean production in Sub-Saharan Africa via research and development of germplasm resources, molecular tools, and scientific knowledge for bean breeding programs yielding beans providing more food and nutrients, and that grow and cook well in African communities. Improving common bean productivity in Africa will provide economic, nutritional, and gender-equity benefits to African farmers and their families. Improvements in cooking and nutritional traits will benefit the poor by providing faster cooking (less fuel needed), nutrient dense beans. Ultimately, this research aims to increase bean production and consumption at the country level, expanding markets for bean producers and improve public health.