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May 12, 2021

Building better beans for the future

As climate change threatens global food security, researchers at Michigan State University are building better beans crucial to human nutrition by tapping into the genetics of the more heat-resistant tepary bean.

The tepary bean (Phaseolus acutifolius A. Gray) is a sister of the common bean which includes kidney, pinto and navy beans. The common bean is the number one source of protein and nutrients for many people living in Central America and Africa, said Robin Buell, a professor of plant biology in MSU’s College of Natural Science and former director of the Plant Resilience Institute.

Her research on bean genetics was published May 11 in Nature Communications.

Robin Buell
Robin Buell

“Mother nature has already made plants that are adapted to different climates,” said Buell, who is also a faculty member with MSU's AgBioResearch. We can use that knowledge to adapt our modern agriculture; we don’t need to reinvent it.”

As climate change heats up the air and land making them hotter and dryer, warmer nighttime temperatures make it more difficult to grow beans. To identify the genes that support bean growth in the desert, Buell and her team sequenced the genome of the tepary bean.

“The tepary bean has evolved over time to grow in the Sonoran Desert, Buell said. “We could lay the genomes for both types of beans next to each other and compare them. If we know this gene on the tepary genome protects it from heat, then, we can add the gene to the common bean.

There are genes from the common bean that are being introduced into the tepary bean to make it easier to grow and there are genes from the tepary bean that are being introduced into the common bean to make it more heat, drought and pest resistant.

These introductions are possible through collaborative research with several agencies like the USDA Agriculture Research Service.

"Our collaboration with Michigan State University has been very productive," said Timothy Porch, a plant research geneticist at the Agricultural Research Service-Tropical Agriculture Research Station in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.

The Agricultural Research Service created the tepary diversity panel using plant samples from the USDA-NPGS, or National Plant Germplasm System, collection and from CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture). The initial genotyping and diversity analysis were completed at the Agriculture Research Service and led to the selection of the cultivated tepary genotype, Frijol Bayo.

“The goal is to grow a bean that gives a good yield, grows in dry, hot climates and is nutritious.” Buell said. “We want to create an accelerated path to breed better tepary and common beans.”

Michigan is the number two bean producer in the nation. For over 40 years, MSU has been a leader in bean breeding and with help from MSU’s expertise in plant resilience, a research partnership was formed over the tepary bean. 

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

By: Emilie Lorditch