Research May Spur New Markets
for Onion Seed Producers
By Linda McGraw
February 28, 2000
More export opportunities may open
up to U.S. onion seed producers because Agricultural Research Service scientists
have developed a new source of cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS). The CMS inbred
line is used as the female parent to produce commercial hybrids.
The majority of hybrid onion seed is produced using a single source of CMS
called S cytoplasm, which traces back to a single plant identified in Davis,
Calif., in 1925. But reliance on a single source of hybrid onion seed could
lead to a disastrous scenario in onions similar to the epidemic of southern
corn leaf blight on corn, according to ARS plant geneticist Michael J. Havey in
The ARS onion breeding program was begun in 1936 by ARS plant breeder Henry
Jones in Beltsville, Md. Since 1940, commercial onion breeders have relied on
the ARS source of CMS to produce onion hybrids. To date, ARS breeders have
released more than 40 hybrids and 70 inbred lines of onions to public and
private breeders, with ARS accounting for 30 percent of the onion research in
the public sector. ARS is USDAs chief
scientific research agency.
The new source of CMS may help diversify male-sterile cytoplasms used to
produce hybrid onion seed. Such diversity may help reduce the genetic
vulnerability of onion and provide more stable production of bulb and seed
onions, at stable costs for consumers.
Havey backcrossed Allium galanthum to bulb onion (A. cepa L.)
populations. Onion flowers are both male and female, so one of the parents
needs to be male-sterile. Pale yellow A. galanthum flowers dont
produce the male parts, called anthers, which makes identification of
male-sterile (female) plants much easier than the older systems of identifying
male-sterile onion plants.
Havey presented the new CMS source at the 1999 National Onion Research
Conference in December 1999, and published an article in the Journal of the
American Society of Horticultural Science (124:626-629).
Scientific contact: Michael J. Havey,
ARS Vegetable Crops Research
Laboratory, Madison, Wis., phone (608) 262-1830,