Chickpeas under world spotlight
multi-nation research collaboration is expected to unlock valuable new opportunities for chickpea production in Australia.
Researchers supported by the Grains Research and Development Corporation have collected and multiplied wild chickpea species from the Middle East to build a unique genetic resource.
This has led to the researchers screening for important traits for potential incorporation into new disease-resistant, stress-tolerant, high-yielding varieties for Australian growers. The painstaking search for and collection of wild genetic material from south-east Turkey, some of which is now being housed at the Australian Grains Genebank in Horsham, has led to the capture of an immense amount of valuable genetic and trait diversity.
GRDC pulses and oilseeds manager Dr Francis Ogbonnaya said the exciting research was likely to lead to a substantial expansion of Australia’s chickpea production area.
He said this was especially the case in regions where opportunities to grow chickpeas had been limited due to the unavailability of lines tolerant to constraints such as acidic soils and abiotic and disease stress. “Not only are chickpeas Australia’s most valuable cash crop, they also play an important role in terms of overall optimisation and sustainability of our farming systems,” he said.
“They act as a break crop for cereal rotations, they add nitrogen to the soil, assist with weed control and they add diversity to a grower’s marketing options.
“But, until now, the genetic base of the domesticated chickpeas we grow today has been very narrow and this has prevented many of our graingrowers from being able to grow chickpeas and enjoy all the benefits these pulse crops bring.”
The international collaboration to expand the world’s chickpea genetic resources began with a Grdc-supported collection mission to Turkey, where the legume was first domesticated, in 2013. It has since developed into a $12-million five-year research program involving eight countries.
The collection mission, the success of which was contingent on Turkish collaboration, was supervised by CSIRO ecophysiologist Dr Jens Berger who has researched chickpea biodiversity and identified serious gaps in the gene pool.
“Early indications are good for the presence of traits such as water-use efficiency, chilling tolerance and nematode resistance,” Dr Berger said.
“I am optimistic that we captured the adaptive diversity needed to improve the performance of cultivated varieties.”
The expanded genetic resource base has been shared among collaborating countries Australia, the United States, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Canada and Morocco – and is now underpinning a series of GRDC project investments that are seeking to introduce valuable new traits from the wild species into domesticated chickpeas suitable for production in Australia.
The wild genetic material is being screened for important traits such as tolerance to acidic soils, drought, heat and cold, as well as water-use efficiency and resistance to diseases such as ascochyta blight – the most important disease of chickpeas in Australia – phytophthora root rot and root lesion nematode.
Dr Ogbonnaya said the likely expansion of Australian chickpea production could also promote opportunities in the area of functional nutrition.
“It’s certainly exciting times for the research community, our plant breeders, our growers and community,” he said.