As a $235 million-a-year business in Florida, bell peppers are an important crop, especially in the southeast and southwest parts of the state.
As of 2019, the amount of bell peppers harvested in the United States is equivalent to 38,300 acres, with Florida accounting for 31% of those, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Florida farmers grow far more sweet peppers than the hot ones, said Bala Rathinasabaathi, a UF/IFAS professor of horticultural sciences. But as a rule, farmers are not going to grow as many bell peppers if root-knot nematodes are prevalent in the soil around them. Nematodes are microscopic worms that damage the roots, weaken the plants and reduce the yield.
And increasingly, farmers are looking for non-chemical ways to control root-knot nematodes. Scientists know they can help growers if they can find ways to make bell pepper varieties that are genetically resistant to root-knot nematodes.
“The variety we developed, although a hot pepper, can be used as a rootstock for bell peppers by using grafting,” Rathinasabapathi said.
Rathinasabapathi led a recently published study in the journal HortScience, in which he and his colleagues found a type of UF/IFAS-bred chilli, or specialty pepper, that shows resistance to the destructive root-knot nematode. Through greenhouse and laboratory tests at the main UF campus in Gainesville, Rathinasabapthi and his team screened a handful of bell pepper varieties.