A toolkit to help scientists find the ultimate chickpea

When you open a can of chickpeas and take out the tasty hazelnut kidney beans, you are part of a story that began about 10,000 years ago...


When you open a can of chickpeas and take out the tasty hazelnut kidney beans, you are part of a story that began about 10,000 years ago. The ancestor of the modern chickpea, a wild plant from the Middle East that likely had tiny hard seeds, was cultivated by humans around the same time as wheat and barley, and began to evolve when the first farmers selected plants whose seeds were larger and more succulent. Archaeologists have even found what appear to be domesticated chickpeas buried under Jericho in the West Bank, so deep that they would have been cultivated even before the inhabitants of one of the longest occupied cities in history began to make pottery.

The humble chickpea has had a somewhat rocky path to its current popularity, however, suggests a new study published last week in Nature which sequences the genomes of over 3,000 examples, making it one of the largest plant genome sequencing efforts ever.

“I’m really excited to see what else will be discovered from this massive resource,” said Patrick Edger, professor of horticulture at Michigan State University who was not involved in the study.

Researchers now believe that after chickpeas were first domesticated in Turkey’s southeastern Anatolian region, their cultivation may have stagnated for millennia. The result has been a genetic bottleneck that makes all of today’s chickpeas the descendants of a relatively small group of a thousand years ago. In addition, modern varieties grown by most farmers have low genetic diversity, which means they are at risk of failing under the stress of climate change. By mapping the genetic makeup of the legume in such great detail, scientists hope to enable plant breeders – who are developing new types of crops – to more easily bring back the diversity in chickpea genes, by giving it a toolbox. flexible to survive drought, floods and disease.

While hummus may have become ubiquitous in American grocery stores only in the Last 15 years, chickpeas have long been a staple crop in developing countries, said Rajeev Varshney, research program director at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad, India, as well as a professor at Murdoch University in Australia and an author of the new paper.

India is the world’s largest producer of chickpeas, growing by more than 10 million metric tonnes in 2019, as well as one of the largest importers.

But the status of chickpeas as a crop of the developing world means they haven’t received as much attention from breeders as products like corn, Dr Varshney said. Chickpea farmers grow a handful of varieties that have been improved over the years without, for the most part, benefiting from genetic information that could give breeders more control over the characteristics of the beans.

In the current study, the researchers sequenced the DNA of 3,366 chickpea samples, ranging from wild relatives in culture to modern stock. They identified a set of genes that plants had in common, as well as a wide variety of others, including some that scientists had not discovered before. These common genes are likely to manage the basic traits that all plants share, while unique genes, on the other hand, can encode special abilities such as drought resistance and disease protection. Going further, the researchers reported sets of genes, some found in older varieties, that could prove useful for modern chickpeas.

According to Dr Varshney, the way plant breeding generally works is that once a genetic trait, such as resistance to a fungal disease, is introduced into a given strain, all individuals will have the exact same tool for blocking it. ‘infection. This means that if any form of the disease evolves and can overcome this defense, the results could be disastrous.

“The whole crop – the whole field – will be wiped out,” Dr Varshney said.

Using the sets of genes identified in this study, and making sure that many different sets are represented in chickpea populations, could be a protection against crop failure, he hopes. And he said breeding for tougher chickpeas is a process that should start now, using genetic information to speed up the process: if farmers one day wake up and find they need a chickpea that can thrive at 104 degrees Fahrenheit, “that would be very difficult,” said Dr. Varshney. “It has to be progressive. “

The study also examines what the genes of the chickpea can tell us about its travels. The bean left the Middle East along independent routes to the Indian subcontinent and the lands bordering the Mediterranean. And although the patterns of its genes suggest a gradual decline in its popularity over thousands of years, scientists are unsure why this could have been the case.

“Maybe the farmers thought it wasn’t helpful,” Dr Varshney said.

That changed around 400 years ago, when, according to data, humans seem to have rediscovered the wonders of chickpeas, for reasons unclear to researchers. The next time you dip some pita in hummus, you may be glad they did.

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Newsrust - US Top News: A toolkit to help scientists find the ultimate chickpea
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