A plant science professor has received a $400,000 state grant to study how to make lettuce more efficient to grow.
Professor David Still said the $416,343 California Department of Food and Agriculture grant will help him identify the genes in lettuce that govern nitrogen and water use. Water has become scarcer with the current drought, and the nitrogen in fertilizers produce greenhouse gas and can cause groundwater pollution, he says.
“The lettuce industry has never had to face these issues, using less water and less nitrogen,” Still says.
Lettuce is a $2 billion industry, and most lettuce consumed in the United States is grown in California and Arizona. Growers use different cultivars of lettuce in each of these regions because of the climatological differences between them.
“There is not a ‘one size fits all’ for lettuce production,” Still says.
Still wants to improve upon particular genetic traits in lettuce. For example, developing seeds that germinate under stress, such as heat or increased salinity, will help adapt the crop to global warming. Heat in particular leads lettuce to “bolt” or change from the familiar round ‘head’ to a lanky and inedible form with flowers, which is a problem in hotter climates like Arizona. The research should identify the genes that keep lettuce from bolting, Still says.
In addition, Still’s lab is working to create more nutritious lettuce. For example, the outer leaves of iceberg lettuce are more nutritious than the inner leaves, Still says. Research may be able to identify and adjust the genes that would increase the nutritional value of the inner leaves, he says.
The project is expected to take a number of years, because the breeding cycle of lettuce is usually between eight to 10 years, Still says. Researchers will conduct their work under the conditions that lettuce would be grown commercially, he says.
The ultimate goal of the research project is not to release a new kind of lettuce, but to identify genes that will improve existing cultivars already being grown by plant breeders, Still says.
“We are doing the research. They can do the development,” he says. “We do it for the knowledge. The primary consideration is figuring out how it works.”
The research findings can be published and released to other industries and private breeders, Still says.