February 19, 2008

Researchers Create Stronger Black-Eyed Pea

In order to help about 200 million people in west and central Africa, a research team is hoping to increase the drought- and disease-resistance of the black-eyed pea, also known as the cowpea.

The scientists at University of Virginia are working alongside African growers, who produce about 80 percent of the 3 million tons of black-eyed peas produced worldwide each year.

They hope their work will result in a tougher form of the legume, which is highly susceptible to drought, insects and parasitic weeds, hazards which have slowed production and even wiped out entire fields.

"Cowpea is kind of the soybean of Africa," said Michael Timko, the U.Va. biologist leading the Cowpea Genomics Initiative. "For west Africa and most of sub-Saharan Africa, it's the main protein in their diet."

The Cowpea Genomics Initiative, which has brought 25 African scientists to the U.Va. lab, plans to combine modern molecular-based technology with traditional selective breeding techniques. The research will be published in an upcoming issue of the scientific journal BMC Genomics.

"With this research, we can add a lot of value to global humanitarianism and African development," said Xianfeng "Jeff" Chen, a U.Va. professor of microbiology involved in the cowpea genetic sequencing.

Chen said that since the DNA structure of cowpeas is very similar to that of soybeans, researchers were able to work on the mapping process more quickly than usual, while also helping them offer help to African growers.

Research looks at genetic markers that might control cowpea traits such as drought resistance, nutrition content, and disease and parasite resiliency. This allows scientists to be able to speed up the traditional selective-breeding process and quickly produce a stronger cowpea.

Timko is currently testing a type of cowpea that he hopes will be able to resist witchweed, a formidable enemy of the cowpea also known as striga.

"It's good to be able to do research that is not only answering an interesting scientific question: 'What makes plants resistant to parasites or drought?' But it's also helping to secure a food source for people," Timko said.


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University of Virginia

Cowpea Genomics Initiative