ST. PAUL, Minn. (September 14, 2021) – Plant protein is an important part of the global diet, but there are barriers limiting plant protein’s potential. Some amino acids, which are essential to diets, are missing or less abundant in plant protein. Also, a popular plant protein, soy, is an allergen for many. One alternative to soy is pea protein, but its nutritional value lags soy. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), with additional funding from Open Philanthropy, is awarding a $612,257 grant through its Plant Protein Enhancement Project to the University of Minnesota to study pea protein, develop methods for screening peas with superior protein nutrition and quality and breed these traits to cultivated peas. Benson Hill, Keygene, Syngenta and the University of Minnesota provided matching funds for a total investment of $800,000.
Peas not only have the potential to provide even more protein but are also an important crop for the environment. Adding pea plants to crop rotations can improve soil nutrition, increasing yields of future crops and decreasing fertilizer use, while giving growers an additional high-demand crop to sell.
“Peas pack an enormous punch for consumers, growers and the environment,” said FFAR’s Crops of the Future Collaborative Director Dr. Jeffrey Rosichan. “This research, along with new opportunities arising from the plant protein market, will enhance pea protein quality and nutritional value, further maximizing the value of this crop.”
Pea protein quality and nutritional properties can be targeted and enhanced through breeding; however, currently there is a gap between breeding efforts to enhance yield and to enhance protein. Breeding seeds for increased yield often neglects breeding for the traits in the seed that can improve nutrition. Identifying superior genetic traits in peas and introducing them into breeding populations is critical for increasing the value of peas for growers and industry, but methods for predicting which seeds and genomes contain these traits are time consuming.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota, led by Dr. Robert Stupar, are working to bridge the breeding gap to ensure higher yields come with higher nutritional value. The researchers are focusing on collecting and evaluating genetic and observable variations of peas. They are identifying regions of pea genome that control the content of pea storage proteins, which are reservoirs of amino acids. The team is also assessing how adjusting pea storage proteins in seeds affects protein quality and nutrition. In addition, they are developing new methods for screening seeds for desired protein traits.
“This is a very exciting project” says Dr. Stupar. “The very first discoveries in genetics trace back to Gregor Mendel, over 150 years ago, studying the diversity of traits in pea. The species remains critically important today for human nutrition and the expanding plant protein market. This project will allow us to bridge breeding, genetics and food science in new ways to build a more efficient process and better product for the consumer.”
This research is being conducted in partnership with FFAR Plant Protein Enhancement Project grantee Dr. Nonoy Bandillo at North Dakota State University. Dr. Bandillo’s research is focused on building genomic resources, breeding models and tools for improving total protein content in peas.
FFAR launched the Plant Protein Enhancement Project through its Crops of the Future Collaborative in 2019 to enhance the protein yield of plant-based staple crops and decrease costs. This competitive research program funds grants to enhance the supply chain for plant-based protein in a profitable and sustainable manner. Applicants were not required to secure matching funds.
Crops of the Future Collaborative
The Crops of the Future Collaborative is a public-private, multi-participant consortium convened by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research. The Collaborative brings together companies and research organizations to accelerate development of new crop varieties that address food and agriculture challenges. The Collaborative leverages participants’ resources to expand the scientific understanding of characteristics giving rise to complex traits that crops need to adapt to changing environments.