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Research Project: Opuntia Ficus-Indica: A Highly Water-Use Efficient And Productive Biomass Feedstock For Semi-Arid Lands

Location: Office of The Director

Project Number: 2034-21000-012-18-R
Project Type: Reimbursable Cooperative Agreement

Start Date: May 15, 2018
End Date: May 14, 2023

The overall goal of the proposed research to expand the use of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) as highly water-use efficient, highly productive, and climate-resilient biomass feedstock for semi-arid regions of the U.S. The project will leverage existing public plant breeding infrastructure through collaboration with the USDA ARS National Arid Land Plant Genetic Resource Unit (NALPGRU) in Parlier, CA and incentivize industry participation by optimizing germplasm selections and testing of production parameters, such as water, fertilizer, viral, microbial and insect pest management, and harvesting inputs, thereby reducing risks for future investments by the private sector. The objective of the ARS scientist component is to provide plant material and associated information from the NPGS Opuntia collection, plan and oversee 2 field trials in Parlier to characterize the biomass production capabilities of the collection and evaluate pesticide and fertilizer inputs, and finally to assist in mentoring a University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) Ph.D. student. To achieve this long-term goal, four major objectives will be pursued: 1) Develop molecular identifiers for resolving the genetic structure of the germplasm collection of O. ficus-indica to remove genetically identical accessions; 2) Evaluate available public germplasm collection of O. ficus-indica for biomass productivity under standard irrigation and fertilization conditions in the field; 3) Evaluate elite germplasm for optimal water and fertilization inputs and refine productivity models based upon environmental productivity index (EPI) and geographical information system (GIS)-based productivity models; and 4) Assess the molecular basis of pad-swelling disease (called “Macho”), a serious threat to large-scale Opuntia production systems, and develop an insecticide IR4 program for monitoring effective pest management for this specialty crop. The ARS portions of the project will be to provide the plant material and associated information on accessions from the NPGS collection, and to conduct two field trials at the Parlier location to support above objectives 2 and 3. All molecular genetics, bioinformatics, modeling and pathology work will be performed by other collaborators on the project. The project will optimize Opuntia production conditions, establish best management practices for Opuntia by defining appropriate viral, microbial, and pest control strategies, and train the next generation of Opuntia breeders and developers while disseminating research results through public outreach and education.

We propose to provide plant material and associated information to support the genetic and phenotypic characterization of the NPGS Opuntia collection for its potential use as a biomass crop. We will also conduct 2 field trials at the Parlier, California location. The first trial will be an evaluation of ~100 Opuntia ficus-indica and hybrid accessions under uniform irrigation and fertilizer conditions to characterize basic biomass productivity. Plants will be established from vegetative propagules directly from the NPGS collection, and total growth will be evaluated after 2 years. A small selection (3-4) of the most promising accessions will be repeated in the second field trial, along with accessions that have already been evaluated in previous field trials. This trial will serve as a replication of the previous work in Logandale, NV, and comparisons of biomass parameters under 6 different irrigation x fertilizer treatments will inform the productivity and Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) model work by the UNR collaborators. Finally, in conjunction with the field trials we propose to include insecticide treatments for control of cochineal scale, to allow for efficacy and residue data collection by scientists in the USDA IR-4 (Minor Crop Pest Management) program.