Exploradio Origins: Taming The Wild Marama Bean

Jan 17, 2019

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.