Ancient secrets in wild relatives

Australian breeders scour globe for old crop breeding stocks

Plant Breeding
Ken Street and Sergey Shuvalov collect ancient crop varieties from Lyangar village fields as part of Australian plant breeding efforts. PHOTO GRDC

Ken Street and Sergey Shuvalov collect ancient crop varieties from Lyangar village fields as part of Australian plant breeding efforts. PHOTO GRDC

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Unlocking Middle Eastern crop traits for new variety developments at home.

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What could a modern, prosperous farm in Australia, with a state-of-the-art header running efficiently up and down neat rows of wheat or chickpeas have to do with rambling, wild plants tenaciously clinging to the side of a mountain in Asia Minor?

Researchers supported by the GRDC are hopeful trips to the Middle East, the home of the descendants of many of the worlds most popular food crops, will help unlock genetic material that could be of massive value to the Australian cropping sector.

Chickpea advances

The researchers have collected and multiplied wild chickpea species from the Middle East.

They are collating a unique genetic resource from which important traits are being screened for potential incorporation into new disease-resistant, stress-tolerant, high-yielding varieties for Australian growers.

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The wild relatives of chickpeas are being screened to help combat some of the major yield constraints on chickpeas in Australia, such as acid soil intolerance and abiotic stresses - including heat and frost shock.

GRDC chickpea and oilseed manager Francis Ogbonnaya says the genetic base of chickpeas grown in Australia is relatively narrow.

This research will open up opportunities for developing new, resilient varieties, he says.

Dr Ogbonnaya points to the gains that could be made in a state like Western Australia with acid-tolerant chickpea lines, saying the industry would boom if there was a reliable, acid-tolerant line to cope with WAs sandy, acid soils.

If growers had access to varieties with acid tolerance and evidence is showing those traits exist in the wild material we now have available the area planted to chickpeas in the west could potentially be about 500,000ha (compared with about 5000ha now), he says.

"It would give growers a high value alternative to lupins, the pulse of choice in much of WA."

This research will open up opportunities for developing new, resilient varieties - GRDC chickpea and oilseed manager Francis Ogbonnaya

The chickpea material, from remote south-eastern Turkey, is being stored at Horsham's Australian Grains Genebank.

Cereal search

Meanwhile, researchers involved in GRDC-invested research looking at breeding frost-tolerant wheat lines are also interested in plants growing wild in the Middle East.

Ken Street, formerly a genebank curator at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), has been looking for promising genetics.

Dr Street has used his expertise with the Focused Identification of Germplasm Strategy (FIGS) to search wheat germplasm for material that has evolved in regions that experience severe frosts.

Frosted wheat is a big problem in Australia and researchers are looking for genetics across the globe to help address this issue. PHOTO GRDC

Frosted wheat is a big problem in Australia and researchers are looking for genetics across the globe to help address this issue. PHOTO GRDC

The Middle East appears to be a key region for plants with this frost-tolerant hardiness.

Promising cultivars were collected and then trialed at sites across Australia. This research will assess the two different levels of frost damage that occur in wheat crops in Australia.

The first one is the low level of pollen loss, which can see 5 to 10 per cent yield losses when the temperature overnight drops to -1C or -2C at head emergence, and is common in the western and southern Australian cropping zones.

The second one is much more severe and occurs when the temperatures drop lower that -2C and the plant is at flowering stage. This can lead to much higher losses.

Overall frost is a massive problem for the Australian grains industry. GRDC-invested studies from 2013 found there was up to $360 million annually lost from frost across all crops.

The costs may not simply be direct there is also the problem where growers plant crop later, due to worries about frost at flowering, and instead find the crops flowering later in the spring where they are more exposed to the risk of significant yield losses from heat shock.

On the chickpea front, GRDC chickpea and oilseed manager Francis Ogbonnaya said the genetic base of chickpeas grown in Australia was relatively narrow.

This research will open up opportunities for developing new, resilient varieties, Dr Ogbonnaya said.

He pointed to the gains that could be made in a state like Western Australia with acid-tolerant chickpea lines, saying the industry would boom if there was a reliable, acid-tolerant line to cope with WAs sandy, acid soils.

If growers had access to varieties with acid tolerance and evidence is showing those traits exist in the wild material we now have available the area planted to chickpeas in the west could potentially be about 500,000ha (compared with about 5000ha now).

It would give growers a high value alternative to lupins, the pulse of choice in much of WA. The chickpea material, from remote south-eastern Turkey, is being stored at Horsham's Australian Grains Genebank.

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