Scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), led by NV Singh, have for the first time in the country cracked the genetic code of pomegranate which will help develop varieties with better yield and shelf-life as well as to prevent diseases like bacterial blight.

Blight disease

“Genome sequence will assist the breeders in developing resistant varieties against major biotic and abiotic stresses but most important among them is bacterial blight disease and simultaneously it will help in improving the horticultural traits,” said Singh, senior scientist at National Research Centre on Pomegranate (NRCP), Solapur.

Announcing the success of genome sequencing, A K Singh, deputy director general (horticulture), ICAR, advised scientists to expand the genome sequencing to other varieties of pomegranate as well. Bhagwa (saffron) variety, developed by Maharashtra’s Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth (MPKV) and released in 2004, now covers more than 85 per cent of 2.78 lakh hectares area under pomegranate cultivation (2021-22). India’s pomegranate yield is 11-12 tonne/hectare whereas potential is up to 20 tonnes/hectare.

“Given the government’s recent emphasis on steering agriculture more towards cash crops, the achieving of this full sequencing of pomegranate is very timely. For our farmers, the possibility of jump in yield and of better quality disease-resistant fruits with higher shelf-life will go a long way in enhancing their income and thereby improving lives,” the ICAR DDG said. He also said that the research breakthrough will help in gene editing, though it may not happen immediately. Highlighting that as many as 2.5 lakh farmer families are dependent on pomegranate, mostly in climatically-challenged regions, he said India’s export value for pomegranate will increase.

Bhagwa variety

Bhagwa variety has good shelf-life due to thick rind and under room conditions and can be marketed up to 7-10 days after plucking, But, under cold store condition of 5°C at 95 per cent relative humidity, it can be stored for 45 days, said Singh of NRCP, Solapur. Other scientists involved in the project, which began in 2016, included P Roopa Sowjanya, Shilpa Parashuram, P G Patil and R A Marathe, all from NRCP, Solapur.

The reference-quality genome assembly of ‘Bhagwa’ is a huge reservoir of publicly accessible genomic resources for pomegranate researchers across the globe and will provide a great impetus to the pomegranate improvement programme in India, according to an official statement by NRCP. These genomic resources will assist the pomegranate genetic improvement programmes of different research organizations through genomics assisted trait mapping, breeding and genome editing applications to develop improved varieties with resistance/tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses, it said.

Due to lack of resistant pomegranate varieties against major pests and diseases, there has been very high dependence on chemical pesticides for managing biotic stresses. However, now that we have managed to sequence the whole genome of this fruit, this will open up incredible avenues for vastly improving yield, growing much better and safer varieties for human nutritional needs at a much faster rate,” said Marathe, director of NRCP.

The genome sequencing experiment was executed at Nucleome Informatics, a Hyderabad-based genomics lab, which is affiliated with the world’s largest genomics programme ‘The Vertebrate Genome Project’ to sequence 70,000 vertebrate genomes. “This is an example of public private partnership in genomics research. With the availability of skilled genomics experts and advanced genomics technologies, scientists can develop genomes and discover useful genes in crops faster,” said Dushyant Singh Baghel, CEO of Nucleome Informatics.

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