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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Chile Harvest Produces Tons of Research

LAS CRUCES -- New Mexicans have hauled home sacks of roasted green chile from the best harvest in 10 years. They've decorated their homes with new, bright red ristras. For many, the state's most famous crop is done for another season -- the only concern is whether the stash of frozen, canned and dried chile will last until next year.

But for Paul Bosland, chile breeder with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station (AES), and his crew of seven graduate students and 15 undergraduates, chile is a never-ending proposition.

"We're finishing our work in the field, but we're really never done," he said. "It goes 12 months of the year. We just move now into the greenhouse and the laboratory."

Bosland's harvest of research comes from six acres of chile, including plots of green and red, as well as paprika, jalapeņ, cayenne, pimento and bell peppers.

"We had a very productive season -- it's been a good growing season for chile," Bosland said. "We've got excellent data from our plots."

The researchers will now analyze such characteristics as yield, color quality, pungency and disease resistance. All the data should keep Bosland's team busy throughout the winter.

Experiments in the chileman's laboratory won't be dull, either. There's research using genetic techniques like those used in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Studies are continuing on the mutant plant that made the cover of "The Journal of Heredity" this year. There's also work to be done with Bosland's "mild" jalapeņo -- a contradiction in terms.

Potential loss of chile varieties is one of Bosland's main concerns. As breeding makes the crop more and more uniform, old cultivars or heirloom varieties die out. Lack of genetic diversity can make it hard for scientists to develop new varieties resistant to disease and insects, he said.

"We know corn had a serious problem with leaf blight because there wasn't enough genetic diversity," Bosland said. "In chile, we want to know if we're approaching a similar dangerous situation."

To find out, Bosland's team is using a new technique -- the same one used to analyze DNA in the O.J. Simpson trial -- to compare the genetics of new varieties with older varieties.

"We may not be losing genetic diversity in chile because we have been using some wild species to bring in disease resistance and other traits," he said. "We may actually be increasing the diversity beyond that found in older lines."

In another project, the researchers are creating genetic diversity by making mutant chile plants.

"We're creating chiles that lack the ability to perform certain functions -- we have chiles with yellow leaves, white leaves, and funny leaf and flower shapes," he said. "These mutants have no horticultural or commercial value, but they provide tools for people who study how plants develop."

Bosland said sometimes scientists can't figure out how something works until they have an example of how it doesn't.

"We are using a chemical to cause the mutations," he said. "My graduate students studied and found out the best concentration, duration and temperature of the chemical to create the mutants."

That research -- along with a photo of one of the mutants -- made the cover of the May/June issue of the "Journal of Heredity."

This winter, Bosland also plans to ask permission from AES to release two new jalapeņo varieties -- one high-yielding and one mild. "A mild jalapeno is kind of an oxymoron," he said. "One might ask why we'd want a mild jalapeņo."

It turns out that consumers want mild jalape$os for salsa and nachos, Bosland said. "What consumers want to buy, the processors want to sell, and the growers want to grow."

That means Bosland and his researchers will keep working non-stop to give growers what they want.