Grant looks at breeding mung bean for plant-based protein market

Woman in field of green, growing mung beans
Assistant professor Arti Singh in field of growing mung beans. Photo courtesy of Iowa State University. 

AMES, Iowa - Iowa State University plant breeders and researchers are working to develop a new crop suited for the plant-based protein market. The first step is developing new varieties of mung bean, a new crop here in the United States. Farmers in Asia have grown mung bean for hundreds of years. This crop is uniquely positioned to help Midwestern U.S. farmers leverage high yield, high protein mung bean varieties to diversify their land management and improve on-farm income.

The “unsung mung” is a drought tolerant, nitrogen fixing legume that can be used for plant-based protein source and is currently used in numerous edible food products around the world. Mung bean is a source of protein in vegetarian burgers found on grocery shelves, and in protein rich pastas, cheeses, snacks. A mung bean isolate can be used in baking also. Mung bean is also widely available in the United States as an egg substitute called “Just Egg.”

The diverse interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Arti Singh, Iowa State assistant professor of agronomy, has received a grant from USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to begin the project focused on mung bean breeding for plant-based protein in superior agronomic variety. Additional Iowa State researchers on the project include Mark Licht, associate professor and cropping systems agronomist; Daren Mueller, assistant professor of plant pathology; Matthew O’Neal, assistant professor of entomology; and Buddhi Lamsal, professor, food science and human nutrition. Steven Cannon, a geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, is a collaborating member.

External partners include the University of Tennessee and the University of Vermont, providing the team necessary expertise to undertake the project. In addition to these partnerships, Singh has identified areas for research pursuits and current market demands through detailed discussions with farmers and food processing companies over the past several years. Farmers and food processors in California, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas and Vermont support the project. Farmers in Kansas and Oklahoma have expressed their intent to help grow test plots for the project as well.

“I wanted to bring together a strong group of scientists to establish a coalition supporting the development of mung bean as a healthy and sustainable plant-based protein crop here in mid-west,” Singh said. “These researchers will provide critical insight into the development of the crop, crop production and management, and genomic information. We are taking a wholistic approach to ensure that we can cater to the needs of farmers and a rapidly growing industry,”

The plant breeding team will focus on developing varieties with increased protein content by leveraging existing and new crosses developed by Singh. The larger team will evaluate crop management practices and contribute to specific traits that would be helpful, such as diseases, insect-pest, and water stress tolerance, and food related traits.

“Mung beans are already fairly drought tolerant,” Singh said. “But there are so many possibilities to explore with breeding efforts.”

The team will spend the next three years combing through data from 500 different lines of mung bean looking at seed yield, days to maturity, growth habit and nutritional traits like protein, amino acid, mineral content and fiber content. They’ll map the genetic makeup of diverse genotypes and develop markers for selecting various traits that can be a valuable community resource.

Doing so will immediately help them work to quickly develop the high-yield, high-protein mung bean for use in plant-based protein market. In addition, it will give scientists insight into the various traits opening doors for future research.

Singh hopes that this project will lay the groundwork for developing supply chains and improving infrastructure to help bolster the growing plant-based protein market in the United States. It will also provide additional crop option in the crop rotation, and one that is very versatile and resilient.

View the video, "Breeding Mung Beans in the Midwest."