It’s in the Abundant in protein and energy-rich oils, cowpeas — also known as black-eyed peas — are central to the diets of millions of people across Africa and Asia. But according to Timothy Close and Philip Roberts, the legume crop is only performing at 20 percent of its genetic potential. So they’ve set out to breed new cowpea varieties, ones with traits such as higher yield and quality, disease resistance, pest resistance and drought tolerance. To accomplish this, they’re not using the laborious breeding methods that have become the standard — crossing one variety with another, based on best guesses. Instead, they’re using a genetic tool called DNA marker-assisted breeding. “We are at the dawn of a new era of worldwide cooperation for cowpea breeding and genetics, and it is exciting
to be part of the transition that is underway,” Close says.
markers. Close calls it a “very detailed road map” of the cowpea genome.
Placed in the plant genome, DNA markers are molecular flags that indicate the location of a particular genetic trait. They allow breeders to screen large populations of plants and locate genes linked to the traits they specify. Close, a professor of genetics, and Roberts, a professor of nematology, received two grants totaling nearly $7 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to continue developing better yielding varieties of cowpea through marker-assisted breeding and new genomic resources.
“We now live in the light of the ‘genome era,’” Close says, describing the new landscape in which each organism can be studied directly or as part of an ecosystem. “The consequences for practical applications are tremendous for food security, renewable energy, conservation and to foster respect for human cultural diversity.”
The support has allowed the pair to increase the resolution of the cowpea genetic map 40-fold, from about 1,100 genetic markers to about 45,000 genetic
Timothy Close (front) and Philip Roberts
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Published on Feb 10, 2015
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