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Research May Spur New Markets for Onion Seed Producers

By Linda McGraw
February 28, 2000

More export opportunities may open up to U.S. onion seed producers because Agricultural Research Service scientists have developed a new source of cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS). The CMS inbred line is used as the female parent to produce commercial hybrids.

The majority of hybrid onion seed is produced using a single source of CMS called S cytoplasm, which traces back to a single plant identified in Davis, Calif., in 1925. But reliance on a single source of hybrid onion seed could lead to a disastrous scenario in onions similar to the epidemic of southern corn leaf blight on corn, according to ARS plant geneticist Michael J. Havey in Madison, Wis.

The ARS onion breeding program was begun in 1936 by ARS plant breeder Henry Jones in Beltsville, Md. Since 1940, commercial onion breeders have relied on the ARS source of CMS to produce onion hybrids. To date, ARS breeders have released more than 40 hybrids and 70 inbred lines of onions to public and private breeders, with ARS accounting for 30 percent of the onion research in the public sector. ARS is USDA’s chief scientific research agency.

The new source of CMS may help diversify male-sterile cytoplasms used to produce hybrid onion seed. Such diversity may help reduce the genetic vulnerability of onion and provide more stable production of bulb and seed onions, at stable costs for consumers.

Havey backcrossed Allium galanthum to bulb onion (A. cepa L.) populations. Onion flowers are both male and female, so one of the parents needs to be male-sterile. Pale yellow A. galanthum flowers don’t produce the male parts, called anthers, which makes identification of male-sterile (female) plants much easier than the older systems of identifying male-sterile onion plants.

Havey presented the new CMS source at the 1999 National Onion Research Conference in December 1999, and published an article in the Journal of the American Society of Horticultural Science (124:626-629).

Scientific contact: Michael J. Havey, ARS Vegetable Crops Research Laboratory, Madison, Wis., phone (608) 262-1830,