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USDA Completes Laboratory Modernization to Advance Pecan Breeding and Research

Contact: Maribel Alonso

SOMERVILLE, TEXAS, March 27, 2024—The Pecan Breeding and Genetics Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) recently completed a 2.5 million dollars laboratory modernization to accelerate pecan breeding through innovations in genetics and plant disease research. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on March 26 to commemorate the completion of the project.

Pecan trees represent North America's native nut tree and a multimillion-dollar crop. These trees have been cultivated commercially for less than 150 years. It takes an average of 28 years from planting a new seedling to releasing a new pecan cultivar with traditional methods of pecan breeding. This is due to the long waiting period for pecan trees to start producing nuts, which takes up more than half of the time. With the new modernized laboratory, the Pecan Breeding and Genetics Program will now be able to incorporate genetic techniques into pecan breeding to accurately predict mature nut traits on young seedlings, saving up to a decade in the breeding process.

Breeding new pecan cultivars is a lengthy process with long waiting periods of 7-10 years before a pecan tree can produce nuts and long testing phases to evaluate potential cultivars. It is challenging to support pecan breeding efforts due to their high resource demands and extended timelines, which make it impractical for private or commercial entities and challenging for academic programs.

The event was hosted by USDA's ARS and the Texas Pecan Grower’s Association. ARS leaders, State Representatives, scientists, and members of the pecan industry organizations toured the new laboratory with now dedicated research spaces for plant genetics, microscopy, tissue culture, controlled-environment growth chambers, and plant disease research.

"Today marks the celebration of the opening of a new genetics and pathology laboratory," said Warren Chatwin, the Lead Scientist at the Pecan Breeding and Genetics Program in Somerville, Texas. "This facility will enable ARS' researchers here at Somerville to advance pecan breeding and support modern genetics and plant disease research, which hasn't been possible since this site was established in the 1980s."

"This event also highlights the significant impact of our stakeholders, the pecan industry organizations. They have unified their voice through the National Pecan Federation to express the need for increased quality, accuracy, and speed of pecan breeding, genetics, and plant disease research, leading to the establishment of this laboratory space. The success of our research is only possible through partnerships with stakeholders including the Texas Pecan Grower’s Association, which has provided decades of support and significant contributions, most recently through the National Pecan Federation," added Chatwin.

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The USDA Pecan Breeding and Genetics Program's new genetics and pathology laboratory meets biosafety containment standards and is equipped with modern research spaces that will advance pecan breeding, genetics, and plant disease studies. (Photos provided by Warren Chatwin, ARS).

In addition, researchers will now be able to do controlled evaluations of promising breeding lines with different regional strains of pecan scab. Pecan scab, caused by the fungal pathogen Venturia effusa, is the most economically significant disease in the pecan industry and has high diversity across the geographic range of cultivated pecans. For the first time, the Pecan Breeding and Genetics Program will now be able to screen pecan scab cultures from all areas of the country in controlled environments to identify new sources of disease resistance and incorporate those unique samples into the breeding program. Researchers will also be able to do controlled evaluations for other significant and emerging pathogens of pecan, including the heavily quarantined international pathogen, Xylella fastidiosa.

The Pecan Breeding and Genetics program has released 32 pecan cultivars to the industry, with notable releases like 'Pawnee,' which moved the commercial harvest window forward to mid-September, 'Lakota,' which has high scab resistance, and 'Wichita,' a high-yielding cultivar that performs well in the West. USDA-ARS’ most recently released cultivars include 'Pueblo,' 'Seneca,' and 'Zuni,' which were patented in 2022.

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in U.S. agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.