Wild Ancestor of the Peanut Found Growing in the Andes

By Adam Campbell-Schmitt |

© Fairfax Media via Getty Images

If you're about to dive into a pile of Reese's peanut butter eggs this weekend, you've got a couple of 10,000 year old legumes to thank. That's because the modern peanut we know and enjoy today is a hybrid of two simpler species of ground nuts that grew in the Andean foothills of Argentina and Bolivia. Scientists have long speculated that the present day peanut had a dual South American heritage, but they also thought that one of those species was likely extinct. However researchers at the University of Georgia and the International Peanut Genome Initiative (an actual thing people have been initiating) recently discovered a live specimen of the long lost cousin growing in the mountains of Bolivia, Scientific American reports.

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One of the mysteries that needed solving was just how the disparate species of peanut growing hundreds of kilometers apart were combined in the first place. The answer: people. Migrating humans carried one species with them as a crop, not realizing that once planted near another species bees would cross pollenate the two. Okay, so people and bees are responsible. OK, mostly bees. But people have cultivated today's peanut for thousands of years and it appears in many diets worldwide, making it a very powerful and well-traveled protein. It's a bit more complex than the peanuts of old, having a full 20 chromosomes compared to its parents, which only had ten each. By studying these simpler OG peanut genomes researchers could develop heartier, more nutritious and more drought-resistant crops. Scientists can also further test just how long the beloved legume has existed, perhaps millions of years. It turns out Mr. Peanut has quite the pedigree.