Mars Chocolate North America, LLC and ICRISAT launched a new research project to deploy advanced sequencing tools and genomics approaches for developing low aflatoxin contamination (LAC) peanut. The four-year US$ 1 million project aims to identify superior LAC lines, pyramid superior haplotypes for aflatoxin contamination in market-preferred peanut varieties and mine additional superior haplotypes for aflatoxin contamination, seed features and yield related traits through germplasm sequencing and analysis.
Aflatoxins are produced during infection and growth of Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus fungi on crops such as peanut. Aflatoxins are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and teratogenic (affecting fetal development). Peanuts are among the crops most susceptible to aflatoxin contamination and serve as the main source of aflatoxin contamination in humans. Owing to strict restrictions in peanut exports to North America (aflatoxin contamination at maximum 20 μg/kg) and Europe (maximum 10 μg/kg), smallholder farmers elsewhere do not receive the desired price for their produce if it has aflatoxin contamination. Furthermore, because of the limited availability of aflatoxin-free peanuts in the markets, food processors and confectionary manufacturers have to buy a limited amount of high-quality peanuts at exorbitant prices. Similarly, smallholder farmers in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa face challenges of exporting their produce because of high aflatoxin contamination in groundnut crops. To address these challenges, ICRISAT and Mars Chocolate have been working together and have identified several LAC lines along with superior haplotypes associated with aflatoxin contamination traits (ACTs).
“We are happy to take this research partnership forward which perfectly aligns with our vision of a prosperous, food-secure and resilient drylands in Asia and Africa,” said Dr Jacqueline Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT, during the signing of the project agreement earlier this year.
Dr Victor Nwosu, Senior Fellow, highlighting the expectations from Mars Chocolate, said, “Use of high-quality peanut is one of the key components for us. However, the high level of aflatoxin contamination has always hindered peanut export from India and Africa. We are excited and look forward to address these challenges, which will be a win-win situation for us as well as the smallholder farmers.”
Dr Arvind Kumar, Deputy Director General-Research, ICRISAT, said, “We are excited to see the deployment of advance genomic tools and technologies towards developing LAC peanut. We look forward to such collaborations, where modern scientific approaches can be integrated to modernize and improve our crop breeding programs across locations.”
Dr Rajeev Varshney, Research Program Director-Accelerated Crop Improvement and the project’s Principal Investigator from ICRISAT, said, “Infection with aflatoxin-producing fungi is one of the most devastating diseases for peanut crop and has serious consequences for human health. However, under this project, we intend to have confirmed LAC lines with stable performance, as well as optimize haplotype-based breeding to develop improved lines with low aflatoxin contamination in the next 3-5 years.” He also elaborated on the successful past and ongoing collaborations and achievements including development of high-oleic lines and low aflatoxin contamination lines using modern science-based approaches in addition to proving a glimpse of targets to be achieved in this new project.
“Mars and ICRISAT while working together have delivered on several aspects of improved peanut varieties, including early and late leaf spot resistant and high oleic groundnut lines, etc. We now look forward to having low aflatoxin contamination lines as an outcome of this project,” said Eric Dowd, Senior Manager, Flavor/Mint Science, Mars Wrigley Confectionery.
Mars and ICRISAT have been partnering over the last eight years in development of foliar disease resistant and high-oleic groundnut lines. In the new project, ICRISAT will work with Murdoch University (Australia) and several Indian agricultural universities such as the University of Agricultural Sciences – Dharwad, Junagadh Agricultural University – Junagadh, Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture & Technology –Udaipur and Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University –Tirupati.
In addition to launch of this new project on 17 November 2021, detailed discussions were held between Mars Wrigley and ICRISAT teams for exploring other potential areas of collaboration. Drs Janet Dawson, Eric Dowd, Victor Nwosu, Bethany Bernier, Robin Vogel, Dondeena Bradley, Christopher Rowe and Daniel Whitehouse from Mars Wrigley were at the launch. Drs Arvind Kumar, Rajeev Varshney, Manish Pandey, P Janila, Hari Sudini, Anu Chitikineni, Damaris Odeny, Manish Roorkiwal, S Anitha, S Srinivasan, and Ephrem Habyarimana from ICRISAT participated in the meeting.