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US scientists working to build better peppers

Greenhouse growers deal with plenty of pests, and it’s the ones below ground, like root-knot nematodes, that can be especially frustrating. More greenhouse pepper growers are looking for non-chemical ways to control these microscopic, parasitic worms. In the search to find ways to make bell pepper varieties that are genetically resistant to root-knot nematodes, University of Florida scientists are getting warmer — literally. 

As of 2019, the amount of bell peppers harvested in the U.S. is equivalent to 38,300 acres, with Florida accounting for 31%, or 11,800 acres, according to USDA statistics. Florida farmers grow far more sweet bell peppers than the hot varieties, says Bala Rathinasabapathi, a University of Florida Professor of Horticultural Sciences. But, it appears components of the spicy selections can prove invaluable to the popular bells. 

“The variety we developed, although a hot pepper, can be used as a rootstock for bell peppers by using grafting,” Rathinasabapathi says. “Root-knot nematodes do their damage in the plant’s root, and if one uses a rootstock that is resistant to the nematode, the plant will not be affected much by the nematode.” 

Mixing Hot and Sweet  
Now that genetic resistance has been found, Rathinasabapthi says the work has only just begun in helping growers knock out nematodes and reduce and/or eliminate the need for crop protection practices involving fumigants. 

“We would like to transfer the resistance gene into sweet bell pepper hybrids via conventional breeding,” he says.

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