Green string bean growth supercharged as research plots the positive impact of a cooler climate


A team of researchers from the University of Tasmania had a simple goal in mind when they embarked on the study to find out why the humble bean grew so well in cool climate areas like Tasmania.

Associate Professor Jim Weller led the team, which also included UTAS researcher Jackie Vander Schoor, along with researchers in Spain and China, and it was never planned as a world record project.

“We wanted to find out how the common [green string] bean, which is a tropical plant, grows so well in the cooler climates like Tasmania and parts of China,” Mr Weller said.

Pots of young beans ready to grow in a university research project.(

Supplied: Jim Weller

)

“We started out by comparing the modern garden variety bean with the wild bean plants which date back unchanged for probably more than 10,000 years.”

“We discovered something critical, and that was the altered function of some vital genes in the plant caused by specialised breeding and plant selection over a very long time.”

“Wild beans need warmth to grow but also short days in their growing season in order to flower, and the genetic changes meant the beans could now flower in the longer summer days in cool climates.”

Story of Jack and the Beanstalk

Researcher Jackie Vander Schoor said the Jack in the Beanstalk fairytale analogy was pertinent with the size of the beans grown in the project, although Jackie and the Beanstalk could be the modern version.

a man and a woman standing next to a health bean crop
UTAS Researchers Jim Weller and Jackie Vander Schoor with a healthy bean crop(

Supplied: Jim Weller

)

In the original story, Jack, a poor, country boy swaps a valuable cow for a handful of beans which are later thrown into the garden and the subsequent beans grow high into the clouds, and Jack climbs the stalk.

Jack encounters an unfriendly giant, but he manages to steal a bag of gold, a golden harp and a goose that lays golden eggs before climbing back down the beanstalk, cutting it down, leaving the giant to fall to his death.

“There are no golden eggs in this story, but there is the possibility of a world record for the tallest bean ever grown on record, which could possibly go into the Guinness Book of Records,” Ms Vander Schoor said.

“Jackie and the Beanstalk is now a common joke among people who know about my work, especially when they realise that one of the beanstalks we grew measured a mighty 15.63 metres.”

“I had a look at the Guinness Book of Records, and the tallest beanstalk mentioned there is just over 14 metres, so we definitely beat that one, and I need to look at how to register a new record,” Ms Vander Schoor said.

Growth spurt

The research team believes the tall beans are the result of crossing the wild beans with the modern beans, planting them in a huge glasshouse, and giving them secret nutrients each week.

“People who were doing other work in the glasshouse were complaining because the beanstalks were taking up most of the room inside, so we had to lay the beans down along the rows and then wrap them back on themselves.”

“The rows were five metres long and we had to string them up on wire rows above us as well, so it was a lot of work to make sure they were kept healthy and happy, which they were,” Ms Vander Schoor said.

Researchers follow the string
The UTAS researchers involved in the bean study.(

Supplied: Jim Weller

)

Beans like the cool

Farmers produce around 40,000 tonnes of green beans in Australia each year, and 25 per cent of that crop is grown in Tasmania in the cooler climate, while the worldwide total bean production is 60 million tonnes.

Associate Professor Weller said the research work was helping the agriculture sector in several ways, allowing more efficient development of improved varieties, allowing increased options, and enabling expansion to other growing regions.

As for the fairytale, it could be a fairytale finish to a project that just set out to find why beans were able to be grown in cool climate regions and ended up with a possible world record tallest beanstalk.

“This one has been my favourite project so far, and it was really interesting to find out things about beans that were kind of secrets since they were first domesticated thousands of years ago,” Ms Vander Schoor said.

“I do have some runner beans in the garden, and they’ve grown pretty tall and they’re up now onto my deck so I can lean over my deck and pick my beans, so that’s pretty cool.”