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The Nuna Bean: 'Power Popper' Has Funny Name, Serious Nutritional Benefits

Posted by Jan Suszkiw, Public Affairs Specialist, Agricultural Research Service in Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017
Nuña beans
Nuña beans. USDA-ARS photo.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Indigenous people of the Andes Mountains in South America have farmed the nuña bean (a.k.a. “Peruvian Popping bean”) as a staple crop for centuries. Its colorful, nutty-flavored seed is especially prized for its tendency to pop open when roasted—a cooking method that requires less firewood than boiling in fuel-scarce regions.

At the Agricultural Research Service’s Western Regional Plant Introduction Station in Pullman, Washington, plant geneticist Ted Kisha curates an edible dry bean collection that includes 91 accessions of high-altitude nuña beans grown by Andean farmers in Peru, the origin for this legume member of the Phaseolus vulgaris family.

Over the past year, Kisha and his collaborators at Washington State University (WSU) have been evaluating the accessions with an eye towards using them to breed new varieties adapted to production in Washington state.  

Kisha thinks the humble nuña has “the right stuff” as a niche crop for small-scale growers and a healthy snack food for consumers—namely, high protein content, dietary fiber, minerals, vitamins, and assorted phytonutrients.   

Long term, “Our goal is to create the ‘Power Popper’—a popping bean jam-packed with nutrition as a snack food for kids and adults,” says Kisha.

Toward that end, he and colleagues are working to eliminate a nuña bean trait called “photoperiod sensitivity,” which would prevent potential varieties from flowering and producing seed in temperate regions like the Pacific Northwest. They’ve also begun selecting plants that grow more upright and less vine-like for easier harvest.

Last summer under Kisha’s guidance, Karolina Kodin—a student from the University of Idaho’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program—conducted a 10-week analysis of the accessions’ nutrient content and genetic characteristics compared to those of eight common bean varieties. Her work sets the stage for developing molecular markers to rapidly identify genes associated with particular traits of interest, such as high protein and popping ability.

Kodin presented results of her comparisons at the American Society for Horticultural Science’s annual meeting held in New Orleans, Louisiana earlier this month.

The work is timely, given the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization has dubbed 2016 as the “International Year of the Pulse.”

Varieties, molecular markers, and other knowledge resulting from continued research will be made readily available to plant breeders and researchers worldwide, benefiting not only consumers of nuña beans, but other edible dry bean species as well.

Karolina Kodin, a student from the University of Idaho's Research Experience for Undergraduates program, analyzing bean varieties
Karolina Kodin, a student from the University of Idaho's Research Experience for Undergraduates program, analyzing bean varieties. USDA-ARS photo.
Category/Topic: Research and Science

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Karla Salp
Aug 25, 2015

Awesome! Way to go, WSU! #wagrown

Aug 25, 2015

Dear Sir
kindly ask you Are these varieties created by genetic modification or by program in line breeder
best regards

Ben Weaver
Aug 26, 2015

@sanaa - thank you for your comment. ARS's National Plant Germplasm System collects, maintains, and distributes the world's natural genetic diversity, and developing the nuna for growing in the United States is done simply by cross pollinating it with a bean already adapted to growing in temperate regions. The progeny are then tested for day-length neutrality and popping ability. The popping ability is a natural trait put there by Mother Nature, and the Amerindians of Peru selected the beans for their ability to "pop" when heated, since boiling a bean at 10,000 feet was fuel-inefficient.

Aug 29, 2015


Candy Swift
Oct 05, 2015

Karolina Kodin did a great job in the discovery task!

Candy Swift
Creative Biolabs

Oct 31, 2015

This sounds like we are going to take something natural, and healthy "cross pollinate" it making it a GMO. It is sad that we cannot stop trying to play GOD.

Feb 10, 2016

Rhya, if you look at GMO that way we are all GMO. Cross pollinating is natural. it happens all of the time in nature. What they are doing is something that has been done from the beginning of time.

Feb 24, 2016

How long will it take to obtain a day neutral popping bean varieties? Thanks for your good job!Jean.

Jade Brady
Jan 03, 2017

I am interested in this bean's popping ability and would love to grow this bean to be productive in the Pacific Northwest. I would love to experiment growing this and provide you with results.

Ben Weaver
Jan 04, 2017

@Jade Brady - thank you for your comment. Researchers are working to remove the photoperiod sensitivity through cross pollinations. That will take a few generations. There are 90 types in the collection. Each one would require crossing and backcrossing numerous times to ensure photoperiod insensitive and the retention of the popping ability, which is complex. They are also all climbing types. To be grown on an agricultural scale, they would also need to be bush beans. However, as a niche crop, they could be grown in the greenhouse with photoperiods of 12 hours and trellising.

Feb 10, 2017

Hi I'm looking for a daylength sensitive bean that can be grown as a warm weather cover crop and/or as an indicator crop for broad mites. Is the original Andes nuna bean vigorous and disease-resistant enough to be used as a summer cover crop? How does it stand up to heat or drought? Is any breeding work going into developing a long-season leguminous cover crop like this?

Ben Weaver
Feb 14, 2017

@Jeffrey - <strong>Ted Krishna, the ARS scientist featured, tells us:</strong> There is currently no information on disease resistance in nuña beans because they haven't been extensively grown here in the United States. These originated in the high mountains of South America. That would give the impression they're tough little guys, but still… no info. Other types of beans are currently being bred for disease resistance, yield, and nutrition. On an industrial scale, there isn't much emphasis on their use as a cover crop. Currently, nuña beans can't be increased in the field here in the United States because of their photoperiod sensitivity. There are many photoperiod sensitive nuña beans in the collection but, the unanswered question is how do you get them in large enough quantity for extensive use as a cover crop?