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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.