Global Research Consortium Involving NUI Galway Decodes the Genome of Pigeonpea

Monday, 7 November 2011

Prof Charles Spillane of NUI Galway discussing latest plant research results with PhD student Antoine Fort

Legume genome sequence to improve livelihoods of poorer smallholder farmers in the dryland tropics in Africa and Asia

A global scientific team, including Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funded scientists from the Plant and AgriBiosciences Centre (PABC) at NUI Galway, have succeeded in sequencing the entire DNA genome of a legume crop of the poor called pigeonpea.


Pigeonpea is a staple food for millions of the world’s poorest people who live in semi-arid regions where only drought-tolerant crops such as pigeonpea can be cultivated. Pigeonpea, grown on about 5 million hectares in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South-Central America, is known as the ‘poor people’s meat’ because of its high protein content, it provides a well-balanced diet when accompanied with cereals. An improved understanding of the pigeonpea genome will have a major impact on improved crop productivity, tackling pests and disease constraints in production, and improved resistance to harsh environments and the future variable climate.


The international initiative to sequence the pigeonpea genome was led by Dr Rajeev Varshney from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and harnessed the research capacity of research labs from India, China, USA and Ireland. Professor Charles Spillane, Dr Mark Donoghue and PhD student Reetu Tuteja from the NUI Galway Plant and AgriBiosicences Centre (PABC) were scientific partners involved in the international initiative leading to the research breakthrough.


Professor Charles Spillane, Head of Botany and Plant Science at NUI Galway, highlights that: “Pigeonpea is a staple food crop of millions of poorer smallholder farmers in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. While crops such as pigeonpea are essential to food and livelihood security in developing countries, such crops of the world’s poorest peoples are considered orphan crops as there is limited scientific research applied to the development of improved higher productivity varieties due to a lack of commercial incentives. Crop improvement research on such crops is predominantly financed as a public good, through the efforts of non-profit humanitarian scientific institutions such as ICRISAT. Here in the NUI Galway Plant and AgriBiosicences Centre we are working closely with ICRISAT, and a range of other agricultural research for development partners, to help advance pro-poor plant and agribiosciences research.  Our activities aim to support the goals of Irish Aid in relation to the Hunger Task Force recommendations to improve smallholder productivity and reduce malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa.”


Professor Spillane, further adds that: “Plant and agribiosciences research for sustainable development will play an increasingly important role in helping to meet future food and livelihood security needs of the ‘bottom billion’ currently suffering from undernutrition and fragile livelihoods. Of the 7 billion people currently on the planet, the food security needs of over 1 billion people are not being met.  Rapidly increasing demand for food and other agriculture derived resources will necessitate major increases in crop productivity (yield per unit hectare) if food production is to double by 2050 to meet projected demand. This will require increased and accelerated public-sector investment in pro-poor crop improvement research to meet the needs of the 1 billion poor whose livelihoods are dependent on staple crops such as pigeonpea.”


The completed genome sequence of pigeonpea is being published in the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology, which is the highest ranked international journal in the area of biotechnology. The paper provides an overview of the structure and function of all of the 48,860 genes that define what makes a pigeonpea plant. It also reveals valuable clues on how the genome sequence can be harnessed to accelerate crop improvement for sustainable food production particularly in the marginal environments of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, a couple of hundred of these genes were found to be unique to the crop in terms of drought tolerance, an important trait that can be harnessed for other similar legume crops like soybean, cowpea or common bean. At present, it can take 6-10 years of crop genetics research to breed a new variety of pigeonpea. With the use of this new genome sequence data, in the future, it should be possible to develop improved pigeonpea varieties for smallholder farmers within 3 years.


NUI Galway has recently entered into a Research Alliance with ICRISAT to combine efforts, expertise and capacity in order to advance Plant and AgriBiosciences research for poverty reduction in developing countries in the semi-arid tropics (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa). Covering 6.5 million square kilometers of land across 55 countries, the semi-arid tropics has over 2 billion people, and 644 million of these are the poorest of the poor. ICRISAT and its partners help empower these poor people to overcome poverty, hunger and a degraded environment through crop and agricultural research.


“The mapping of the pigeonpea genome is a breakthrough that could not have come at a better time. Now that the world is faced with hunger and famine particularly in the Horn of Africa brought about by the worst drought of the decades, science-based, sustainable agricultural development solutions are vital in extricating vulnerable dryland communities out of poverty and hunger for good,” says ICRISAT Director General William D. Dar, who visited Galway earlier this year to meet with the President of NUI Galway Dr Jim Browne.


“Modern crop improvement technologies for smallholder farmer crops such as pigeonpea will be crucial to speed up the development of improved varieties that can provide high yields and improved livelihoods, and at the same time meet the challenges of marginal environments and the threat of climate change and scarce natural resources," adds Dar.


Pigeonpea is the first ‘orphan crop’, the first ‘non-industrial crop’ and the second food legume (after soybean) for which plant scientists have succeeded in sequencing the genome. The sequencing was accomplished by a global research partnership, the International Initiative for Pigeonpea Genomics (IIPG), led by ICRISAT with plant genome research partners such as BGI – Shenzhen (China), the National University of Ireland Galway, US research laboratories like University of Georgia, University of California-Davis, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and National Centre for Genome Resources, and also support from the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme based in Mexico.




Author: Marketing and Communications, NUI Galway
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