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USAID - Feed the Future Innovation Lab – Climate Resilient Chickpea

USAID - Feed the Future Innovation Lab – Climate Resilient Chickpea

Chickpea is the world’s second most important pulse legume, with particular importance in the semi-arid tropics of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Like the majority of cultivated legumes, chickpea has exceedingly narrow genetic and phenotypic diversity. This has consequences for breeding of climate-resilient crop varieties, because much of the historical phenotypic plasticity necessary to tolerate environmental extremes has been lost through domestication. Thus breeding only within cultivated material will have steeply diminishing returns, and there is an urgent need for new sources of diversity.

Breeding for climate resilience as well as other high value traits will be greatly accelerated if we can expand the range of adaptations accessible to breeders. Towards this end, we propose to characterize wild Cicer species from a representative range of environments; introduce wild diversity into phenology-normalized backgrounds so that it is amenable for trait assessment and breeding; characterize the material by systematic phenotyping using an international consortium of chickpea breeders; and, develop a digital information network that explicitly identifies and quantifies the contributions of agronomically useful alleles. The stunning power of such approaches to identify valuable traits and their genes has been demonstrated through the study of humans, Arabidopsis and Drosophila, but has not impacted legume crops.

The outcomes of this project will be to foster breeding of high-yielding, climate-resilient chickpea within the context of user-preferred traits: seed quality and nutrient density, reduced inputs due to climate resilient nitrogen fixation, and biotic stress resistance among them. We have a clear focus on research-for-development, as all upstream activities (i.e., germplasm collection, genomics and population development) are predicated on the need to facilitate downstream phenotyping and breeding activities. In the course of this work we will identify and introduce newly collected wild alleles into diverse high performing elite cultivars that are optimized for climate resilience and nutrition. These efforts will make chickpea more resilient to climate change, and in the process alleviate rural poverty and reduce childhood malnutrition by increasing crop and food security for smallholder farmers.

Our team combines key knowledge and capacities for advanced research within the United States, with the vital and underutilized biological resources of Turkey, and a strategic geographic focus for crop improvement in Ethiopia and India. Our focus on Ethiopia derives from several factors. First, Ethiopia is Africa’s largest producer of chickpea (40% of total), where it serves both as a commodity crop in the agricultural economy and as a vital source of nutrition and food security for Ethiopia’s rural, poor, agrarian population. Importantly, smallholder farming in Ethiopia typically involves women as the main source of labor, and thus year-to-year variation in chickpea production has a disproportionate impact on rural women and the children they care for.

Our strategy of research-for-development is predicated on the idea that gaps in knowledge and/or resources can be rate limiting to achieving important societal goals, such as those outlined in USAID’s Ethiopia Multi-Year Strategy document. Similar sets of goals are relevant to the focus of USAID’s mission in India, and to our partner institution ICRISAT. The poor state of wild chickpea germplasm represents such a gap, while access to properly structured collections of wild germplasm, and their methodical introduction into pre-breeding pipelines, can bridge this gap and be the cornerstone of developing climate-resilient chickpea. Importantly, success in our project will provide a guide to initiate similar programs in other pulse legume species.

This project incorporates the following 5 objectives

Objective 1

Characterize a comprehensive collection of wild species focused on C. reticulatum, the wild progenitor of cultivated chickpea.

Objective 2

Create reverse-introgression and advanced backcross introgression lines to (a) remove phenological barriers that otherwise impede the use of wild germplasm in breeding, (b) establish a resource for association mapping of climate-resilience traits, and (c) initiate breeding with superior wild alleles.

Objective 3

Phenotype reverse-introgressed and advanced back cross introgression lines for a range of high-priority traits related to developing high-yielding, climate-resilient chickpea.

Objective 4

Develop a predictive network of genotype-phenotype associations that identifies genes and genome regions from wild species that improve chickpea’s yield resilience to climatic extremes.

Objective 5

Resource and data management and public-facing bioinformatics.

Objective 6

Train and educate a gender-diverse group of young scientists from target countries.

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