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Va plant sees potential in peanut DNA research

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News,Science and Technology

SUFFOLK, Va. (AP) — At the oldest peanut-shelling plant in the United States, the past is meeting the future.

George Birdsong, the third generation in his family to run Birdsong Peanuts, is surrounded by history at the plant off Factory Street, east of downtown. But there, in a 1939 building that retains its original wooden beams and hardwood floors, he's helping drive a scientific effort that may take years to pay off.

The goal: to unravel the peanut's DNA and use the knowledge to create new varieties that better withstand drought, disease and pests, as well as enhance essential nutrients.

Birdsong, who's been in the peanut business for 47 years, has made it a mission to get the Peanut Genome Initiative off the ground. Until he took a lead role, growers, shellers and manufacturers had never collaborated on a project they knew would cost millions of dollars.

"Someone had to jump in and lead the effort, to get the financial part done," Birdsong said as he sat in the shelling plant's boardroom, where portraits of his grandfather, father and uncles hang on the wall.

Birdsong wore a suit, and his necktie had a peanut design on it. He's not a scientist. He's an attorney and a trusted friend of the growers, who have a vital stake in the health of the crop.

Growers sell directly to Birdsong Peanuts. Trucks arriving at the plant daily are lifted onto a ramp that dumps their load into a warehouse. The nuts are sorted, shelled, and then shipped to manufacturers of candy and peanut butter.

The company, founded in 1914, produces 75,000 tons of peanuts each year in Suffolk, at one of its six shelling plants in the United States. Birdsong is the sole supplier of peanuts for Nestle's Butterfinger and Baby Ruth candy bars.

Through the years, machines replaced humans on the factory floor. Electronic eyes keep or reject peanuts based on customers' specifications. In one area of the plant, machines sort the perfect peanuts for commercial products. A peanut of between 18 and 20 sixty-fourths of an inch wide, for example, is needed for peanut M&Ms. Birdsong easily detects the difference.

In the hallway of the corporate office in Suffolk, plastic bags full of sample peanuts in the shell are neatly stacked on a table. Birdsong picks up a bag. Peanuts sold in the shell are a small niche market, he said, but an important one. The hulls in the bag marked "reject" are too dark. Lighter hulls are preferred by customers who sell them at ball games.

Peanut farmers endure an arduous growing season, making hundreds of trips across the field to fight fungus and disease that threaten the fragile legume. Leaf spot, root rot and other threats can stunt plant growth, cause wilting and even death.

Science has turned to plant DNA, homing in on resistant genes for solutions. The DNA of soybeans, rice and bananas, among dozens of other plants, has been sequenced, but peanut seed volume trails other crops worldwide, making genetic research less of a priority for seed distributors who support it.

As head of a shelling company, however, Birdsong had no trouble seeing the potential in the research. His business needs successful growers for a reliable supply and happy customers for steady demand.

The Peanut Genome Initiative became a reality about a year ago. As a member of the Peanut Foundation board, which supports research, Birdsong was in position to the lead the project. He learned that the price to sequence the peanut's DNA had dropped significantly from when the foundation first inquired several years ago.

"When I realized that the chance of accomplishing the project at a more reasonable number could be done," he said, "that's when I jumped in and said, 'I'm going to make this happen.'?"

Growers have been contributing to research for years through their membership in the National Peanut Council, but they lacked industrywide support. "We felt we should all have an equal stake," said Jeffrey Pope, a peanut farmer in Southampton County and a past representative on the council. "For a long time, we felt other parts of the industry weren't ponying up as much as the growers were."

Birdsong, considered a big voice in the peanut community, bridged the gap.

"I'm someone who can explain it to the average folks," he said. "Someone who's looking at the big picture, that this is something the industry needs to do."

Birdsong devised a cost-sharing plan to fund the $6 million project. It would be divided evenly between the three industry stakeholders: the growers, the shellers and the manufacturers.

They hired the Beijing Genomics Institute to sequence the peanut DNA in China, and researchers at universities in the United States will mark the genes for traits. Once the markers for the genes that confer resistance are identified, peanut breeders will be able to create new varieties through standard hybridization in less than five years.

"This will be a major paradigm shift for peanut breeding over the next few decades," said Howard Valentine, executive director of the Peanut Foundation. "We can substantially reduce its cost by creating plants that are naturally resistant."

Scott Jackson, a plant genomics researcher at the University of Georgia who is working on the project, met Birdsong last year at a conference. It was the first time the scientist had heard from someone on the production side of the peanut business, and he was struck by Birdsong's long-term vision.

"To meet someone like George, way downstream from what we do, was very unusual for me; it was very impressive," Jackson said.

It could be years five, 10, 25 before the peanut industry begins to benefit from the research.

"He can see value a decade out," Jackson said. "He's someone who is considered a visionary."

Birdsong has taken on the task of getting broader support for the project and convincing all the players of its value.

"He has been very instrumental in selling this idea," said Victor Nwosu, a plant science program manager at Mars Chocolate North America.

Large manufacturers, including Jif, Planters and Mars, are helping to pay for the project.

Birdsong keeps up with the research via monthly telephone conferences as it moves ahead. A first report from Beijing is due any day. He recently returned from an industry meeting in Washington, and he spoke at the National Peanut Buying Points Association's annual meeting in New Orleans.

"His love for the peanut industry compels him," Nwosu said. "Without him, I don't know that we would have made the progress we've made." Growers are ready to reap the benefits of genomic progress. Peanut production in the United States set a record last year. Jeffrey Pope farmed about 400 acres and brought in $650 a ton, the most money of all the crops he grows. But even if breeding the perfect peanut is attainable, growers won't necessarily plant more.

"You don't want to oversupply the market," Pope said.

Instead, farmers might free up more acres for other crops and spend less time controlling weeds, diseases and insects in the peanut fields.

They can then thank Birdsong for paving the way.

"George has been able to pull all this together," Pope said. "He's been a huge asset in being able to move the process forward."

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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