SCIENTISTS are accelerating the breeding of climate-change proofed chickpeas after identifying genes that can enhance yield, increase resistance to drought, heat stresses and disease, and improve nutritional qualities.
Professor Rajeev Varshney, a food scientist at Murdoch University and research program director at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, has led a world first study sequencing more than 3000 chickpea genomes and mapping their variations.
Chickpeas are one of the world's most important pulse crops. Protein-rich chickpeas are cultivated in more than 50 countries. They are crucial for food security, especially in developing countries of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Chickpeas are the largest pulse crop in Australia after lupins, both in terms of planting area and production. It ranks second in area and third in production among the pulses worldwide.
It is also important rotation crop in farming systems, as it is self-fertilising for nitrogen, reducing the need for nitrogen fertiliser.
"This research provides a complete picture of genetic variation within chickpea and a validated roadmap for using the knowledge and genomic resources to improve the crop," Professor Varshney said.
"By sequencing the genomes of 3366 chickpea varieties, representing the global collection, this study reports the first chickpea pangenome with valuable insights into numerous genetic variations that otherwise could not be detected by using a single reference genome.
"Through this we have identified genes that can play a role in adaptation to climate change and help in developing climate resilient chickpea varieties."
The research involved a group of 57 researchers from 41 organisations across 10 countries.
In general, researchers are interested to identify "good" genes for crop improvement. However this research looks to weed out the bad, too.
"We propose that we should not only accumulate good genes in new varieties, but we should also identify the 'bad' genes responsible for lowering crop performance that can be fixed," Professor Varshney said.
"This study serves as a foundation for fast-forward breeding for developing superior chickpea varieties with enhanced yield, higher resistance to drought, heat stresses and disease, and better nutrition."
This continues Professor Varshney's significant contribution to improving food security in Asia and Africa by developing genetically optimised crops for different environmental conditions.
"There are few better places in the world for dryland agriculture research than Western Australia, where the effects of a drying climate are being felt so acutely," Professor Varshney said.
"So, myself and my team are really looking forward to engaging with local farmers, local industry and the wider community to develop solutions to some of the highly complex problems we all face as well as continuing our work in Asia and Africa."
A massive international research effort has led to development of a genetic model for the 'ultimate' chickpea, with the potential to lift crop yields by up to 12 per cent.
The research consortium genetically mapped thousands of chickpea varieties, and the UQ team then used this information to identify the most valuable gene combinations using artificial intelligence (AI).
The UQ team used the data to model a chickpea with perfect genetics for seed weight, a trait linked to yield.
"We are using our AI 'FastStack' technology platform to design a chickpea with the ultimate genetics for maximum seed weight, and we think this will ultimately be a valuable tool for chickpea breeders," Professor Hayes said.
FastStack combines AI with genomic prediction technology to identify the combinations of genes most likely to improve crop performance.
Associate Professor Lee Hickey said the global demand for protein-rich pulses was increasing.
"Improving the productivity of chickpea for Australia offers opportunities for our farmers to supply local food industries and export markets," he said.
"Using this AI-generated chickpea model for increased seed weight in the field will be challenging, given the number of generations it will take in cross-breeding for optimal chickpea genetics, and the impact of different environments and management practices on crop growth.
"But we do have tools like speed breeding that can speed this process up and allows us to test and put into practice these theoretical scenarios."
Pro Vice Chancellor of the Food Futures Institute, Professor Peter Davies, said Murdoch University was working hard in pursuit of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of eliminating hunger and poverty and promoting sustainable production.
"This research is more proof we're contributing to achieving these goals on a global stage," Professor Davies said.
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