Temperate desert steppe in Inner Mongolia where scientists
collected M. ruthenica, an Asian relative of alfalfa. (Photo image from
web page of ARS scientist
Alfalfa Meets Its Asian
Relatives By Jan
January 3, 2001
Hardy new alfalfa cultivars that tolerate drought, frequent
grazing, poor soils and other crop stresses may come from four germplasm lines
that Agricultural Research Service
scientists developed from the legume's wild Asian relatives.
Commercial cultivars bred from this germplasm could help broaden
alfalfa's range and productivity as a cut-hay crop or grazing-type forage,
particularly on dry rangeland typical of western states like Oklahoma, Montana
The wild alfalfa relatives also have potential as a new
stand-alone legume crop in these areas, according to
Campbell, an agronomist at ARS'
Genomics and Improvement Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.
In addition to hay, valued at an estimated $8.1 billion
annually, alfalfa is a popular cover crop since it helps improve soil fertility
by "fixing" nitrogen from the air. The legume's flowers also are a favorite
nectar source for bees.
To improve the crop's stress tolerance and adaptability,
Campbell turned to Medicago ruthenica L., a distant relative of today's
cultivated alfalfa. M. ruthenica is an ancient but durable legume from
the desert steppes, volcanic soils and grassland regions of Siberia, Tibet,
Mongolia and China.
During the past decade, Campbell, Larry Teuber of the
University of California at Davis, and
the late Danny Mowrey of ARS traveled to Inner Mongolia to bring back 100 plant
specimens, called "accessions," for preservation in the
U.S. National Plant Germplasm
System maintained by ARS, the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's principal scientific research agency.
Campbell says germplasm lines MR2-SYN1, MR3-SYN1, MR4- SYN1 and
MR5-SYN1 are their "top picks." Last fall marked their first-ever release in
the form of seeds sent to more than 100 universities, commercial seed companies
and other organizations around the world. This followed nine years of plant
breeding and evaluation to improve the wild alfalfa for desirable traits
including dense, upright growth, early flowering, seedling vigor and leaf
In one field trial, for example, MR4-SYN1 scored higher on leaf
hopper resistance than the other three lines, including WL316, a commercial
variety with leaf hopper resistance.
Scientific contact: Austin Campbell, ARS
Genomics and Improvement Laboratory (formerly Soybean and Alfalfa Research
Lab), Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5638, fax (301) 504- 5167,