Groundbreaking Bean Genome Sequencing Offers Potential to Enhance Food Security and Resilience in Drought-Prone Regions

May 20, 2023 0

An international team of researchers has achieved a significant milestone by successfully sequencing the genome of a climate-resilient bean variety, opening doors to improve food security in regions prone to drought. The sequencing of the hyacinth bean, also known as ‘lablab bean’ (Lablab purpureus), holds immense promise for expanding cultivation of this crop, which not only brings economic benefits but also adds much-needed diversity to the global food system.

Originally native to Africa, the hyacinth bean is grown across tropical regions, producing highly nutritious beans used for both human consumption and livestock feed. It has demonstrated exceptional resilience to drought and exhibits adaptability to various environmental conditions, thereby contributing to both food and economic security. Additionally, the hyacinth bean enhances soil fertility by nitrogen fixation and holds medicinal properties due to its bioactive compounds.

The extensive genetic diversity of the plant suggests the possibility of selecting adaptive genotypes tailored for different environments and climatic challenges. Despite its potential for genetic improvement to boost productivity and enable wider cultivation, especially in drought-prone areas, the full utilization of the hyacinth bean’s capabilities has yet to be realized.

Chris Jones, Program Leader for Feed and Forage Development at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya and one of the lead authors of a new study published in Nature Communications, emphasized the importance of recognizing the high value of crops like the hyacinth bean for farmers struggling to produce sufficient food. While its cultivation may be smaller in scale compared to major crops, its impact on food security is significant.

In their study, the researchers identified the genomic location of crucial agronomic traits related to yield and seed/plant size. They also documented the organization of trypsin inhibitor genes, which could be targeted for breeding purposes to reduce anti-nutritional properties. Furthermore, the study traced the history of the hyacinth bean’s domestication, revealing that it occurred independently in two different locations. This finding paves the way for investigating the evolution of agronomic traits and exploring different pathways that can lead to similar outcomes.

The hyacinth bean is among several “orphan crops” that play a vital role in local nutrition and livelihoods but have received limited attention from breeders and researchers. Currently, wheat, rice, and maize account for over 40 percent of global calorie intake and receive the majority of breeding and crop improvement efforts. This lack of crop diversity renders the global food system susceptible to environmental and social instabilities. Underutilized crops like the hyacinth bean hold the key to developing diversified and climate-resilient food systems. Genome-assisted breeding emerges as a promising strategy to enhance their productivity and adoption.

Oluwaseyi Shorinola, another lead author of the study from the International Livestock Research Institute and a visiting scientist at the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom, sees the potential for orphan crops like the hyacinth bean to pave the way for the next green revolution. The first green revolution witnessed significant advancements in major crops such as wheat and rice, and now it is time for underutilized crops to take center stage.

Notably, this research project stands out not only for its scientific breakthrough but also for its African-led approach. African scientists led the project, collaborating with international institutes. Meki Shehabu, a scientist at ILRI in Ethiopia and co-author of the study, highlighted the significance of African scientists taking a leading role in the research. Overcoming contextual challenges, such as limited sequencing facilities, computing infrastructure, and bioinformatics capacity in Africa, the team utilized low-cost portable sequencing platforms and conducted extensive capacity building initiatives. The project’s success was achieved through an Africa-based eight-month residential bioinformatics training program, promoting knowledge transfer and skill development.

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Looking ahead, the research team anticipates that the genome sequencing of the hyacinth bean will inspire further genetic improvement efforts not only for this crop but also for other underutilized indigenous crops. Their goal is to enhance food and feed availability not only in Africa but also globally.

The implications of this breakthrough extend beyond the scientific community. The findings emphasize the importance of recognizing and valuing crops based on their local significance and impact on food security, rather than solely considering their global market value. Orphan crops like the hyacinth bean may not receive the same level of attention as major crops, but their potential to improve food security in regions facing challenges such as drought is immense.

Diversifying the global food system is crucial to building resilience against environmental uncertainties and social disruptions. By embracing and harnessing the genetic diversity of underutilized crops, such as the hyacinth bean, farmers and communities can adapt to changing climatic conditions and enhance their livelihoods.

The success of this research project serves as a testament to the power of collaboration, inclusivity, and African leadership in addressing agricultural challenges. It demonstrates the importance of involving scientists from diverse backgrounds and regions to tackle complex issues and find sustainable solutions.

As the world faces increasing pressure to ensure food security for a growing population, studies like this highlight the untapped potential of indigenous crops. By investing in research, genetic improvement, and sustainable farming practices, we can unlock the full potential of underutilized crops, creating a more resilient and diverse global food system.

The groundbreaking achievements in sequencing the hyacinth bean genome not only provide a stepping stone towards enhanced food security in drought-prone regions but also offer valuable insights into the genomics of other indigenous crops. This knowledge can revolutionize agricultural practices and contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive future for global agriculture.

Eagmark Agri-Hub will continue to follow the progress of this research and provide updates on the utilization of the hyacinth bean’s genetic potential, as well as other advancements in the field of agriculture, to support a resilient and thriving agricultural sector worldwide.

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