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Genome feat hope for chhole, pakora aficionados

New Delhi, Jan. 27: Indian crop scientists have sequenced the chickpea genome, a feat they say will help boost yields of the nation’s best-selling legume used in myriad dishes, from chhole to those requiring besan such as pakoras and bondas.

The chickpea sequencing effort, led by scientists in Hyderabad with collaborators elsewhere in India and other countries, has identified an estimated 28,269 genes or about 90 per cent of the genes in this staple crop. Their paper on the chickpea sequence appeared today in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Scientists say the newly identified genes will help accelerate efforts to improve India’s chickpea yields, which, at only 850kg per hectare in contrast to Canada’s 1,600kg per hectare, are still much lower than what agricultural scientists believe can be achieved.

“India is the world’s largest producer, largest consumer and largest importer of chickpeas,” said Rajeev Varshney, a plant biologist at the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, Hyderabad, who led the genome-sequencing consortium.

“We don’t produce enough to meet the domestic demand; so increasing the yield is important for India,” Varshney told The Telegraph.

Some of the newly identified genes appear to control functions such as seed nutrition, adaptation to stress from heat and drought, and disease resistance. When scientists identify genes for specific traits, they can focus breeding efforts on those particular genes.

“It narrows the playing field — we can use this molecular information to make breeding efforts more precise,” said Douglas Cook, professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, who played a key role in planning the project, assembling the sequence and analysing data.

Scientists are, for example, close to identifying specific genes that control flowering time. “This may allow breeders to rapidly adapt new varieties to changes in climate,” Cook told this newspaper. “Similarly, we hope to find genes involved in disease resistance to important pests.”

The consortium sequenced a widely cultivated Canadian kabuli chickpea variety as a reference genome and then sequenced 90 other lines from 10 countries, including 19 varieties of chickpea from India.

While Indian researchers had in the past contributed to international efforts to sequence the genomes of rice and tomato plants, the chickpea is the second genome-sequencing effort to be led by Indian crop scientists, after they sequenced the pigeon pea genome two years ago.

In India, the main chickpea varieties cultivated and consumed are the desi chickpea, also called the Bengal gram, and the kabuli chickpea or Garbanzo beans.

“It’s protein-rich and a primary protein source for vegetarians in India,” Varshney said. But demand overshoots supply and India has had to import chickpeas from Australia, Canada and Ethiopia, he said.

The chickpea is the world’s second-most widely grown legume after the soybean, and is used in cuisines across the world: mashed into hummus in West Asia, spiced into a salad in Mexico, or garnished with spinach in North America.

In recent decades, Cook said, chickpea production has moved from northern to southern India, where heat and late-season drought limit yield. “If future breeding efforts can address these two issues, along with disease resistance, then yields could increase significantly.”

The sequencing effort involved 49 scientists from 23 institutions across 10 countries. Several institutions under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, including the Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur, contributed to the sequencing effort.