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Exploradio Origins sparks ideas and conversation with its unique and engaging 90 second nutshell approach. Each episode highlights the work of one of the more than 200 fellows at the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University.

Exploradio Origins: Taming The Wild Marama Bean

The growing conditions and seeds of the marama plant.

What if I described a plant that has nutrient-rich beans, protein-rich roots, produces high quality oil, and, grows in desert regions where rural communities desperately need a drought-resistant crop? Sound too good to be true? Maybe not. I’ve just described the wild Marama bean, native to Africa.

“It has never been grown as an organized crop, it’s just collected out of the bush. The idea is can we find ways of developing a set of lines that give you decent yield which we can give to farmers,” Christopher Cullis, professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University, said.

Cullis is finding out if we, with our modern genetic know-how, can turn the marama bean into a cultivated crop. However, unlike most crop plants, a marama plant can’t be inbred, so the seeds turn out to be heterogeneous- meaning they all have different genes.

“So you can’t say, oh I can collect all of the seeds from this plant and they are all going to be the same, they’re not, they’re all going to be different.  So it’s really trying to find out, can we identify some plants that grow really well, and then choose both parents, which we’re fairly sure will give us the correct profile, because it doesn’t flower for two years, so it’s important to get it right the first time around.”

If Cullis and his collaborators can breed a marama plant that gets it right the first time around, it would be a lifeline for African farming communities in drying climates. 

Kellen McGee is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear and accelerator physics at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She’s held a number of research positions, ultimately becoming a research assistant in a biophysics and structural biology lab at Case Western Reserve University. There, the Institute for the Science of Origins instantly became her intellectual home. Central to the ISO’s mission is science communication.