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For the first time, 90 chickpea genomes decoded

Jan 28, 2013

Decoding of chickpea genomes, a leading grain legume, will help in improving livelihoods of small farmers and provide nutritional security to the poor.

In a scientific breakthrough that promises improved grain yields and quality, greater drought tolerance and disease resistance, a team of scientists lead by Hyderabad based International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) decoded not one but 90-odd genome sequences of chickpeas.

The only other food crops that have been genome-mapped so far are rice, soyabean and pigeon pea.

This research means that scientists will not be able to breed for new strains of crops with better information and not depend on hit and trial breeding. It also means that the time taken to isolate characteristics and breed new varieties of the crop will reduce to no more than three years – conventional breeding could take up to 15 years – which is a definite advantage as it provides the farmers the benefits of research much more quickly and accelerates the process of food and nutrition security.

The research also reveals how the sequence could be useful for crop improvement leading to sustainable and resilient food production. It will also help in the improved livelihoods of smallholder farmers particularly in marginal environments of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

With ICRISAT having a policy of open access ‘to take the benefits of research to the poorest’, the decoded sequence of the legume will not be patented. The genome map can also be used to harness genetic diversity by broadening the genetic base of cultivated chickpea gene pool.

“Making the chickpea genome available to the global research community is an important milestone in bringing chickpea improvement into the 21st century to address nutritional security of the poor, especially the rural poor in South Asia,” said Dr David Bergvinson, Senior Programme Manager, Science & Technology, Global Development, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“At the moment, it takes 4-8 years to breed a new chickpea variety. This genome sequence could reduce to half the time to breed for a new variety with market-preferred traits,” explains Dr Rajeev Varshney, leader of the genome sequencing project and Director – Center of Excellence in Genomics, ICRISAT.

Highlighting the importance of the research, renowned agricultural scientist Prof MS Swaminathan, Member of Indian Parliament, says, “Chickpea occupies a pride of place in the struggle against protein hunger. In spite of its importance to human nutrition and farmers’ livelihoods, scientific attention to this crop using frontier technologies has been rather limited.”

Recognising the efforts of the global research team, Ashish Bahuguna, Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, says, “Decoding of the chickpea genome would help chickpea farmers to increase productivity, reduce cost of inputs and realize higher incomes.” He adds: “This development is of great importance to India, the largest producer and consumer of chickpea.

Chickpea is the second largest cultivated grain food legume in the world, grown in about 11.5 million hectares mostly by resource poor farmers in the semi-arid tropics.

The chickpea genome sequencing project was undertaken by a group of scientists led by ICRISAT, the University of California-Davis (USA) and BGI-Shenzhen (China) with key involvement of national partners in India, USA, Canada, Spain, Australia, Germany and Czech Republic.

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