Ancient chickpeas have the ‘novel’ traits we need, say scientists

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Modern chickpeas were domesticated around 10,000 years ago and are less suited to today's climate. © GettyImages/olgaman
Modern chickpeas were domesticated around 10,000 years ago and are less suited to today's climate. © GettyImages/olgaman

Related tags: Agriculture

The modern, domesticated chickpea has an extreme lack of genetic diversity, leaving it vulnerable to climate change, prompting scientists to seek out wild varieties for crossbreeding programmes.

As the conditions in which today’s farmers grow chickpeas become further removed from the environment when the plant was first domesticated (which took place around 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia) cultivation using this variety will become increasingly difficult and prone to crop failures. 

"The wild relatives of crop plants are the most promising reserves of genetic diversity," ​says plant biologist at the US University of VermontEric Bishop von Wettberg.

“In chickpea, a crop with limited genetic variation and very minimal collections of its immediate wild relatives, new collections may enable breeders to address pressing needs, such as increased resilience to drought, heat and cold, increased seed nutrient density, reduced dependence on inputs, and resistance to biotic stress,” ​they write.

"Despite their potential value in meeting the challenges of modern agriculture, few systematic, range-wide collections of wild relatives exist for any crop speciesand even the available wild genetic resources are widely under-utilized for crop improvement," ​the scientists write in the open access article published in Nature Communications​.

Wettberg and his colleagues therefore set out to collect wild relatives, crossbreeding them with domesticated varieties to develop hardier seeds.

Simply by travelling around and asking local shepherds in the Kurdish region of southeast Turkey to show them wild chickpea plants, they were able to collect seeds from 371 plants and the DNA from 839.

Using these samples, they were able to determine that modern chickpea breeding programmes lack 93% of the genetic variation of the wild plants.

Global effort to find better seeds

Wettberg and his team are not the only plant scientists develop resistant crops capable of withstanding the planet’s changing climate or meeting the need for more sustainably sourced protein.

In 2015, researchers from global research partnership CGIAR trawled through CGIAR’s gene database of more than 750,000 plant and seed specimens before identifying thirty varieties of heat resistant beans.

Meanwhile Israeli seed breeding firm Equinom, which will be speaking at Protein Vision, a FoodNavigator event in Amsterdam next month​, has used non-GMO techniques to develop pea, chickpea and cowpea varieties with 50% more protein than commercially available alternatives.

Source: Nature Communications

“Ecology and genomics of an important crop wild relative as a prelude to agricultural innovation”

Published online ahead of print, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-02867-​z

Authors: Eric J.B. von Wettberg, Peter L. Chang, Douglas R. Cook

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