Food breakthrough – Irish scientists help decode ‘pigeon pea’ genome

8 Nov 2011

NUI Galway scientists have played a prominent role in helping decode the genome of what is known as ‘pigeon pea’, also known as ‘poor people’s meat’, which due to its high protein is used by resource-poor farmers in Asia, Africa and South America.

International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), an Indian-based agricultural research institute, led a global partnership and spent years analysing the genome of what is known as pigeon pea.

NUI Galway Botany and Plant scientist, Mark T.A. Donoghue, Reetu Tuteja and Charles Spillane helped in decoding this plant’s genetic code and have seen their work published in the highest-ranked journal in the area, Nature Biotechnology.

Known as “poor people’s meat, due to its high protein content, this plant provides a well-balanced diet in combination with cereals. It is mainly used by resource-poor farmers in many semi-arid tropical regions of the world, such as Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South-Central America.”

ICRISAT director general William D Dar says: “The mapping of the pigeon pea 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.”

The ‘orphan crop’ as it is known, did not attract too much of companies’ attention due to the lack of commercial perspectives. Even so, it is the first “non-industrial crop” and the second food legume (after soybean) with a completed genome sequence.

This discovery proves it’s important, as “modern crop improvement technologies for smallholder farmer crops, such as pigeon pea, will be crucial to speed up the development of improved varieties that can provide high yields and improved livelihoods” added Dar.

Irina Pascu

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