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USAID-supported Project to Apply Genomics Research to Pigeonpea Improvement

Published: Wednesday, February 06, 2013
Last Updated: Wednesday, February 06, 2013
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First ‘orphan legume’ genome sequence to be translated to crop breeding to boost food, nutrition and income security of dryland poor

First ‘orphan legume’ genome sequence to be translated to crop breeding to boost food, nutrition and income security of dryland poor

Hyderabad, India (31 January 2013) – A comprehensive, three-year, US$2-million pigeonpea molecular breeding project was launched yesterday aimed at improving the food, nutrition and income security of millions of poor people in the drylands.

The project "Pigeonpea Improvement using Molecular Breeding" supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) India Mission, aims to assist pigeonpea breeders to develop improved cultivars more efficiently using genomic tools. It will be implemented by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) headquartered in Hyderabad, India, along with the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), New Delhi; the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Raichur, Karnataka; Acharya NG Ranga Agricultural University (ANGRAU), Hyderabad; and other partners in India and Africa.

In the fight against poverty and hunger amid the threat of climate change, highly nutritious, drought-tolerant crops are the best bets for smallholder farmers in marginal environments to survive and improve their livelihoods. Pigeonpea, grown on about 5 million hectares in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South-Central America, is a very important food legume for millions of poor in the semi-arid regions of the world. Known as the “poor people’s meat” because of its high protein content, it provides a well-balanced diet when accompanied with cereals.

"I am very pleased to announce here today this new partnership between the governments of India and the United States, and ICRISAT – a partnership that will take new studies in pigeonpea genomics to the next stage of scientific research. This collaboration will improve the agricultural productivity of pigeonpea, a main source of protein for more than a billion people in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean," said Ms Elizabeth Warfield, Deputy Mission Director, USAID, New Delhi during the project launch.

Dr William Dar, Director General, ICRISAT, acknowledged USAID’s commitment to the project. “USAID has always been an advocate of the agricultural research-for-development continuum. Thus, this project has a research component in Phase I and an application component in Phase II. This project is another testament to USAID’s commitment to improve the lot of resource-poor farmers particularly in the pigeonpea growing countries of the world."

“Under the CGIAR Research Program (CRP) on Grain Legumes led by ICRISAT along with other CGIAR Consortium members and program as well as national partners, genomics research will play a crucial role in speeding up the development of improved varieties for smallholder farmer crops such as pigeonpea,” Dr Dar added.

Dr Swapan Datta, Deputy Director General (Crop Science), ICAR acknowledged ICRISAT’s efforts in decoding the genome sequence of pigeonpea in 2011, and now that of chickpea in 2013. He said, "A scientific breakthrough like genome sequencing excites and motivates the scientific community to find grand solutions for grand challenges. We are very excited to see the launch of this USAID project.”

“The primary objective of the project is to translate genome information into the farmers’ fields. The project team is quite confident and looks forward to working with different partners and stakeholders in enhancing pigeonpea crop productivity that will eventually help ensure food security in India and generate more incomes for farmers in Africa", said Dr Rajeev Varshney, Project Coordinator and Director, Center of Excellence in Genomics,ICRISAT.

The project launch meeting held on 30 January at the ICRISAT headquarters in Patancheru near Hyderabad brought together about 70 delegates from India, Ghana, Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi and private sectors.

Pigeonpea is an important crop for India’s food security, consumed in the form of dal in regular diets of majority of the country’s vegetarian population. India is the largest producer of pigeonpea in the world, largest consumer of pigeonpea and largest importer of pigeonpea. This opens great opportunities to further develop the industry in the country.  

Meanwhile, sub-Saharan African countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda grow pigeonpea to export to India, making pigeonpea production critical in increasing incomes and improving the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers. As the crop is generally grown in marginal environments, crop productivity is heavily challenged by several biotic and abiotic stresses.

Although traditional breeding has generated some hybrids to enhance yield, there is an urgent need to deploy molecular breeding approaches for improving varieties and hybrids. Because of limited genetic diversity and non-availability of genomic tools, molecular breeding has not been used in pigeonpea breeding programs. With the decoding of the pigeonpea genome sequence by an ICRISAT-led global research team in November 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India (GoI) together with ICAR and ICRISAT started to develop a road map for pigeonpea improvement using molecular breeding. That road map has led to the implementation of this USAID India Mission sanctioned project.

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