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The wild side of chickpeas

New genes from wild relatives will make chickpeas a better option for more farmers

The wild side of chickpeas

It wasn’t all that long ago in Canada that it was hard to find hummus in a grocery store — unless you went to a specialty shop.

“Now hummus is everywhere!” says Bunyamin Tar’an, associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “Any food store you go to has it, so it’s a growing market, and all those chickpeas have to come from somewhere.”

Indeed they do. But while over 27 million acres of chickpeas are grown worldwide in over 40 countries, the problem is that they are notoriously poor field competitors and they are highly susceptible to biotic and abiotic stressors, including disease and climate, which means global chickpea yield is prone to wild fluctuation. 

The solution is obvious. Chickpea breeders need to come up with new varieties that offer higher yield potential and better stress tolerance. Simple, right?

Not so fast, says Tar’an, who specializes in chickpea breeding and genetics. “Chickpeas have a very narrow genetic background. They are all related to each other,” he points out. Even kabuli and desi types aren’t so far apart, genetically speaking, since the former were derived from the latter.

With so little domesticated genetic material to work with, chickpea breeders the world over are turning to wild species of chickpea in search of useful traits that can be added to their own breeding programs. “It’s a long-term project to build up the resource for breeding,” says Tar’an.

It’s also a project where Canada has a role to play.

Kissing cousins

Crossing wild chickpea varieties (Cicer spp.) with domesticated ones sounds easier than it actually is. “One of the difficulties with the wild ancestor is they require a long growing season, also short day length. Those are challenges here in Canada,” says Tar’an.

Large phenological differences (growth characteristics and timings) between wild and cultivated chickpea varieties are a big stumbling block, Tar’an adds. “For example, root system architecture, heat and cold tolerance as well as biomass responses to nitrogen and rhizobia are all heavily impacted by even small phenological differences among genotypes.”

Using traditional crossing techniques to capture the best of both worlds (wild and domestic) and overcome the phenological barriers typical of wild species is very inefficient on a cost-benefit basis. It’s the main reason why few chickpea breeders have turned to wild species as a genetic resource. Until now.

What has changed is the recent formation of a global collaborative effort to unlock the promise of wild Cicer species. 

The work Tar’an will be starting this year is part of a larger U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) project based at the University of California (Davis). “They are co-ordinating the collection of wild varieties and characterizing them,” Tar’an says. 

In a nutshell, researchers at UC Davis are gathering wild Cicer species from their centre of diversity in Turkey, then systematically analyzing and cataloguing genetic material. This material will then be made available to Tar’an in Canada, as well as to researchers in Australia, Turkey, India and Ethiopia, who will all use the wild germplasm in their own breeding programs. 

“I’m using these wild species and crossing them with our own domestic cultivars,” says Tar’an. “In Australia and the other countries, they’re doing that, too. Everyone has their own challenges. For us here, it’s ascochyta, among others.”

Growing local

Tar’an explains his team’s three-step process to using wild germplasm to improve Canadian chickpea varieties.

First, remove the phenological barriers through reverse introgression. Essentially, he says, this is a reverse engineering process where a desired trait in a domestic variety (say, a shorter flowering period) is introgressed into the wild germplasm — taming the beast, so to speak. These crosses will be produced in growth chambers and become the starting point of a full-fledged domestic breeding program.

Tar’an says that he will be crossing CDC Leader with 20 wild “accessions,” or 20 pieces of unique genetic material, which will ultimately result in 1,000 unique genotypes.

Second, the resulting lines will be phenotyped and selected for yield traits as well as biotic and abiotic stress tolerance. Given the sheer number of individual plants, this work will occur in stages over the three-year period of the study, starting with yield. Since all countries in the larger USAID project will be doing the same thing at roughly the same time, results will be shared to help researchers more quickly identify variables such as climate adaptation among the material everyone is working with.

Third, Tar’an aims to develop a predictive network of genotype-phenotype associations based on his team’s work. “We will have the tool box, so we can use this information to do things faster and more affordably in the future,” he says. 

“This is a three-year project starting this year,” says Tar’an. “By the end of that time, we expect to have a collection of germplasm resource for future breeding purposes, and that will be a gem. It will open a lot of other research, for example into the interaction between chickpea species and rhizobia. We do not know if the interaction we have now is the best or not.”

Tar’an and his team are receiving funding from the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers and the Agricultural Development Fund to complete this project. “The WGRF funding is very important,” he says. “It’s like a commission from farmers. If they didn’t think it’s important for them, they wouldn’t fund it.”

Chickpeas, Tar’an says, are a bread-and-butter crop for those who grow them because returns can be substantial in a market that seems to want more and more. His hope is that this work will expand Canada’s chickpea-growing area while improving stress tolerance and yields. “We’d like to move chickpea production farther north to the dark-brown soil zone, that’s where we’re targeting,” says Tar’an. “I’m really excited about it.”

Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) is a farmer-funded and -directed non-profit organization investing primarily in wheat and barley variety development for the benefit of western Canadian producers. Through investments of more than $57 million, WGRF has assisted in the development and release of more than 100 new wheat and barley varieties over the past decade and a half, many of which are today seeded to large portions of the cropland in Western Canada. WGRF also invests in research on other western Canadian crops through the endowment fund. In fact, since 1981 the WGRF endowment fund has supported a wealth of innovation across Western Canada, providing over $26 million in funding for over 230 diverse research projects.

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