In a significant breakthrough, scientists from 21 research institutes globally have successfully completed sequencing 429 chickpea lines from 45 countries, to identify genes for tolerance to drought and heat.

The efforts equipped the team with insights into the crop’s genetic diversity, domestication and agronomic traits. The study also mapped the origins of chickpea and its ascent in Asia and Africa.

The team, led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), in close collaboration with BGI-Shenzhen, China, involved 39 scientists from leading research institutes world over. This is the largest-ever exercise of whole-genome re-sequencing of chickpea.

The major implications of the research to the agricultural community are the potential development of newer varieties of chickpea with higher yields, which are disease-and-pest-resistant, and better able to withstand the vagaries of weather, says the paper published in Nature Genetics Online .

The results of the three-year-long study showed that more than 90 per cent of the chickpea cultivation area is in South Asia. Drought and increasing temperatures are said to cause more than 70 per cent yield loss in chickpea globally. Chickpea being a cool season crop, is likely to suffer further reduction in productivity due to rising temperatures.

Collaborators’ views

“The genome-wide association studies identified several candidate genes for 13 agronomic traits. For example, we could identify genes (e.g. REN1, β-1, 3-glucanase, REF6) which can help crops tolerate temperatures up to 38 degrees centigrade and provide higher productivity,” says Rajeev Varshney, Project Leader & Research Program Director, Genetic Gains at ICRISAT.

Xu Xun, CEO and President, BGI Research, China, co-leader of the project said, “BGI is very excited to work with CGIAR institutes like ICRISAT in high-end science research, which could enable development of drought and heat-tolerant chickpea varieties for India and Africa.

The study established a foundation for large-scale characterisation of germplasm, population genetics and crop breeding. It also helped understand domestication and post-domestication divergence of chickpea.

“This new-found knowledge will enable breeders to enhance the use of diverse germplasm and candidate genes in developing improved (climate-change ready) varieties that will contribute significantly to the increased productivity and sustainability of agricultural development in developing countries,” said Peter Carberry, Director-General, ICRISAT.

Highlighting the importance of this study, Marie Haga, Executive Director, Global Crop Diversity Trust based in Germany, said, “This deeper understanding of the crop could enable scientists to breed new varieties that are both highly productive and resilient to climate change, benefiting farming communities in developing countries".

The study was done in close collaboration with partners from National Agricultural Research Systems. India, for instance, as the biggest consumer of pulses in the world, faces an increasing production gap. The new research could take India closer to attaining self-sufficiency in pulse production.

“This is a significant contribution to global agricultural research and these scientific solutions will help mitigate issues the world is facing right now. Science is key to ongoing efforts within ICAR and ICRISAT and also the way forward for agriculture in the country,” said Dr Trilochan Mohapatra, Secretary, Department of Agricultural Research and Education & Director-General, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

Chickpea Origins

The study also confirms that chickpea came to India from the Fertile Crescent/ Mediterranean via Afghanistan and may have been introduced back to the primary centres of origin after 200 years.

The study speculates about the possible introduction of chickpea to the New World directly from Central Asia or East Africa, rather than the Mediterranean.

“Our study indicates Ethiopia as a secondary centre of diversity and also maps a migration route from the Mediterranean/ Fertile Crescent to Central Asia, and in parallel from Central Asia to East Africa (Ethiopia) and South Asia (India),” Varshney added.