NDSU pulse crops breeder Nonoy Bandillo receives $1.2 million grant to study pea protein

NDSU plant sciences assistant professor of pulse crop breeding and genetics Nonoy Bandillo is directing a project targeted at increasing the protein content found in peas. The $1.2 million project is funded by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), a federal organization that supports agriculture research activities focused on addressing key agriculture problems including plant health and production; agricultural economics and rural communities; and agricultural and food security.

Pulse crops are legumes crops harvested for their dry seeds as opposed to vegetable crops that are harvested green. Dried beans, chickpea, lentils, and peas are the most common types. Pulses are adapted to cool, semi-arid to sub-humid growing conditions and they perform best in the cool and relatively dry areas of the mid-latitudes like North Dakota.

In addition to being an important source of protein for human consumption, livestock feed, and the pet food market, pea is also an important cover crop component for sustainable agriculture.

For human nutrition, pea is among the most relevant sources of plant-based protein given that its nutritional profile strongly complements that of cereals and that it has limited environmental impacts and economical production costs. Pea protein also has the advantage of being non-GMO in some markets. Pea has low allergenicity and it’s rapidly becoming an attractive alternative to soy protein for addressing type 2 diabetes and obesity conditions given its moderate protein concentration, slowly digestible starch, and insoluble fiber.

While soybeans, dry peas and dry beans all yield more protein per acre worldwide than the most productive animal products, the research team has identified the protein found in peas (Pisum sativum L.) as holding the highest promise across a number of factors.

Currently, pea cultivars average 22% total protein content but previous research indicates certain pea accessions may contain up to 34 % total protein content. The research team hopes to address this gap by focusing on understanding the relationships between genes, traits, and the environment in increasing the quantity of protein by using large-scale phenotyping and selective breeding with genomic selection to increase the protein content. This project will efficiently tap such genetic diversity from the current collection while advancing the field of genomics-assisted breeding and help develop improved and adaptive pea cultivars.

“Everybody talks about a projected world population of nine billion people by 2050,” said Bandillo. “What they do not tell you is that as part of this growth there will also be a rising demand for pulse crops. As part of demographic growth and urbanization, consumers are now preferring healthier foods and have developed an interest in plant-based protein. Thus, pulse crops, particularly pea, have emerged as a frontrunner. A good example of pulse product that is gaining traction in the alternative protein market is the Beyond Meat burger. My ultimate goal is to develop and release new varieties of pulse crops to meet this growing need.”

The researchers aim to utilize results from this study to develop pea varieties better adapted to stressful environments by building genomic resources, breeding models, and tools and increasing genetic diversity in US public breeding programs. Given that the combined annual production of dry pea in Montana, North Dakota, and the Palouse region of eastern Washington and northern Idaho accounts for more than 900,000 acres in 2020 or nearly 96% of the total production of dry peas grown annually in the USA, areas initially targeted will include those states.

In addition to Bandillo and NDSU assistant professor Jiajia Rao (cereal & food science), researchers from Washington State University, USDA-ARS, and Montana State University along with experts from Benson Hill Biosystems, Inc., KeyGene, Inc., and Syngenta Crop Protection, LLC will be involved in the research.

“This type of work is highly interdisciplinary, so to be successful we collaborate and coordinate our efforts with researchers and scientists working on different disciplines coming from different institutions,” Bandillo added.

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) was established in 2014 and fosters collaboration among agriculture researchers from the Federal government, states, Extension services and institutes of higher education, industry and nonprofit organizations.

The pea protein research began in January 2021 and will run through December 2023.

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