Grant looks at mung bean breeding for the plant-based protein market

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Plant breeders and researchers at Iowa State University are working to develop a new crop suitable for the plant protein market. The first step is to develop new varieties of mung bean, a new crop here in the United States. Asian farmers have been growing mung beans for hundreds of years. This crop is uniquely positioned to help farmers in the U.S. Midwest take advantage of high-yielding, high-protein mung bean varieties to diversify their land management and improve on-farm incomes.

‘Unsung mung’ is a drought-tolerant, nitrogen-fixing legume that can be used as a source of vegetable protein and is currently used in many edible food products around the world. Mung beans are a source of protein in veggie burgers found on grocery store shelves and in high-protein pastas, cheeses and snacks. A mung bean isolate can also be used in baking. Mung bean is also widely available in the United States as an egg substitute called “Just Egg”.

The diverse interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Arti Singh, Iowa State Assistant Professor of Agronomy, received a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to launch the project focused on breeding mung bean for plant protein in a superior agronomic variety. Other Iowa State researchers on the project include Mark Licht, associate professor and cropping systems agronomist; Daren Mueller, assistant professor of plant pathology; Matthew O’Neal, assistant professor of entomology; and Buddhi Lamsal, Professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition. Steven Cannon, a geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, is a contributing member.

External partners include the University of Tennessee and the University of Vermont, providing the team with the expertise needed to undertake the project. In addition to these partnerships, Singh has identified research areas and current market demands through detailed discussions with farmers and food processors over the past several years. Farmers and food processors in California, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas and Vermont support the project. Farmers in Kansas and Oklahoma have also expressed their intention to help cultivate test plots for the project.

“I wanted to bring together a strong group of scientists to establish a coalition supporting the development of mung beans as a healthy and sustainable vegetable protein crop here in the Midwest,” Singh said. “These researchers will provide essential information on crop development, crop production and management, and genomic information. We take a holistic approach to ensure we can meet the needs of farmers and a rapidly growing industry,”

The plant breeding team will focus on developing varieties with increased protein content by taking advantage of existing and new crosses developed by Singh. The larger team will evaluate crop management practices and contribute specific traits that would be helpful, such as disease, pest and water stress tolerance, and diet-related traits.

“Mung beans are quite drought tolerant already,” Singh said. “But there are so many possibilities to explore with breeding efforts.”

The team will spend the next three years analyzing data from 500 different lines of mung bean looking at seed yield, days to maturity, growth habits and nutritional characteristics such as protein, amino acids , mineral content and fiber content. They will map the genetic makeup of various genotypes and develop markers to select for various traits that can be a valuable community resource.

This will immediately help them rapidly develop the high yielding, high protein mung bean for use in the vegetable protein market. Also, it will give scientists insight into different traits opening doors for future research.

Singh hopes this project will lay the foundation for developing supply chains and improving infrastructure to help bolster the growing plant-based protein market in the United States. It will also provide an additional growing option in crop rotation, and a very versatile and resilient option.

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