Breeding A Better "Popper"

Oct 31, 2016 Diane Nelson
What do you get when you cross a jalapeno pepper with a bell pepper?

Professor Charlie Brummer, director of the UC Davis Plant Breeding Center, and students Randi Jimenez, Saarah Kuzay, and Mengyuan Xiao, study a new breed of pepper growing in the UC Davis Student Farm.
An ingenious group of UC Davis students are proving you can create a jumbo, organic, jalapeño “popper,” perfect for stuffing with rice, vegetables, protein, and cheese. For the last four years, the young scientists have been making crosses and developing a new variety of pepper with the taste and texture of a jalapeño, an extra-large cavity, and the right traits to thrive on organic farms.

“Many pepper varieties don’t do well in organic farming systems because they weren’t bred for those systems,” said Ph.D. student Saarah Kuzay, current team leader of the project. “Our variety will be able to produce high-quality peppers with fewer inputs of things like fertilizers, pesticides, and water.”

The popper project began in 2012 when Ph.D. student Jorge Berny wondered if a new breed of pepper could solve issues farmers faced with sun damage, yield, and size.

“The jalapeño peppers growing at the UC Davis Student Farm were supposedly large enough for poppers, but they weren’t really that big,” said Berny, who studies bean genetics with Professor Paul Gepts. “The idea was to start a small breeding program that would give students hands-on experience in field breeding, as well as develop cultivars adapted to low-input organic production.”

The first generation of the bell-and-jalapeño offspring looked a bit strange—lots of pointy-topped bell peppers. The second generation looked very different from each other. Some resembled bell peppers; others looked more like jalapeños. Each year, more students joined the effort and helped make crosses with the peppers they liked best in terms of size, shape, texture, taste, and production.

“It could be another three years before we have a cultivar ready for release,” said Kuzay, who studies wheat genetics with Professor Jorge Dubcovsky. “But we’re getting there.”

The student-run project has become a model for other programs. UC Davis received a $1 million USDA grant to help fund the pepper project along with two new student-led organic breeding efforts with tomatoes and beans. The students produced a short film, “How to Breed Plants, as Told by Students,” which illustrates the science and purpose of plant breeding. You can find it here.

“It’s interesting to watch the peppers develop, year after year,” Kuzay said. “It shows that students and farmers alike, not just seed companies, can develop new varieties to suit their needs.”

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