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Bald Beets Sweet News to Sugar Industry

Losing hair can become an obsession for many people, but what if you're a sugar beet?

Scientists at the ARS Sugar Beet and Bean Research Laboratory in East Lansing, Michigan, have developed a new germplasm type of sugar beet, Beta vulgaris L., that has a smoother root system than standard beet varieties.

Sugar beets are a multimillion-dollar industry in the United States. They are used almost exclusively for industrial extraction and purification of sucrose found in common table sugar and many food products. Sugar beet agriculture complements the cane sugar industry by providing up to two-thirds of the nonimported sugar used by American consumers.

Conventional sugar beets are cone-shaped, with two large vertical grooves from which a mass of fibrous roots emerge. These roots help anchor the plant while it's in the ground. But they tend to hold soil—especially clay-type soils—when beets are harvested. Any soil that clings to the roots must be removed before processing and eventually returned to the farm or disposed of as waste, an expensive alternative.

Field tests with new smooth-root (no grooves) sugar beet germplasm demonstrate they can be harvested with up to 70 percent less soil clinging to them than with more conventional sugar beets.

This cuts the chances of spreading soilborne pests and diseases such as rhizomania, or crazy root, a fungus-spread viral disease in sugar beets. This disease is not currently found in all sugar beet fields or growing areas.

Work on the smooth-root germplasm was begun in the late 1970's by ARS plant geneticists J. Clair Theurer, who is now retired, and Gerald Coe at Beltsville, Maryland. Theurer released SR87, a highly smooth-root sugar beet, in 1990, but no commercial varieties are yet available, says ARS geneticist Joe Saunders.

"Some commercial seed companies are working with the smooth-root germplasm released in 1990, but the availability will await a change in the processing industry approval standards," says Saunders.

Additional smooth-root sugar beet germplasm is being developed at the East Lansing lab. -- By Dawn Lyons-Johnson, ARS.

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