Scientists at the University of Warwick are using the latest DNA mapping techniques to allow British farmers to grow one of the UK’s favourite foods.
The navy bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) – also known as haricot bean – commonly ends up on our plates with a tomato-based sauce as baked beans.
It is a staple of the British diet – we consume hundreds of millions of cans of baked beans in a year.
However, every single baked bean we eat is grown outside of the UK, with the majority imported from Canada.
The main reason for this import dependence is the lack of available navy bean varieties that are adapted to growing in the UK environment.
So scientists at the University of Warwick Crop Centre have launched a research project that will make use of the latest DNA sequencing technology to begin mapping the genes governing the traits that are needed for the navy bean to thrive in the UK climate.
This will lay the foundations for breeding new varieties that are better adapted for growing by British farmers.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is funding PhD student Andrew Tock’s project through a food security studentship at the University of Warwick Crop Centre, supervised by Professor Eric Holub and Dr Guy Barker.
Professor Eric Holub said: “The ultimate aim is to produce a navy bean which is less sensitive to cold soil in the spring, is resistant to common diseases that occur over the summer in the UK, and is also ready for harvest in early September.
“A shortened growing season is most important as navy beans in the UK have to be harvested in September when it is still dry to avoid autumnal damp weather which causes them to discolour.
“Using next-generation DNA sequencing technologies, we will improve the ability of bean breeders to select new varieties by effectively providing a genetic roadmap for locating useful natural variation of desired genes in the bean genome.
"We hope in the near future to begin working in partnership with UK farmers to begin testing whether experimental lines are more suitable for bean production in British growing conditions."
The last time scientists in the UK looked seriously at developing a British navy bean was during the 1980s at the National Vegetable Research Station, the forerunner of Warwick Crop Centre.
This historic research produced a collection of genetic resources upon which today’s scientists are now drawing.
This time around, however, the researchers are using the latest high-tech genetic analysis methods to analyse the genomes of the beans they are growing in the field.
Scientists will hunt for DNA sequence variations occurring between the genomes of elite parent lines to develop a database of genome-wide genetic markers.
The markers allow the researchers to ‘map’ the genes controlling the specific traits a British navy bean needs to survive under UK conditions, such as cold tolerance for seedling establishment, early maturity for harvest, and resistance to diseases such as halo blight.
This genetic map can then be used as a roadmap for breeding programmes to produce new varieties which can be grown commercially by UK farmers.
Andrew Tock said: “Navy beans are a potentially viable rotational crop for UK farmers and we think that there could be great demand from consumers for a home-grown baked bean.
“We eat hundreds of millions of cans of beans every year in the UK – they are cheap, tasty and are recognised as being part of a healthy diet.
“Growing navy beans in Britain makes sense from a farming point of view too.
“In addition to the potential market value of locally produced navy beans, growers could stand to make agronomic gains from incorporating a nitrogen-fixing legume break crop into their rotations, which could promote soil renewal after repeated cereal and oilseed rape rotations.”
This genetic database to be produced at Warwick could also provide useful information to benefit farmers in developing countries, where the common Phaseolus bean plays a vital role in contributing to food security and sustainable agricultural livelihoods as a staple food crop.
Breeders in Africa and Latin America could draw on the Warwick Crop Centre database to feed into breeding programmes to create varieties adapted to local conditions and markets.