This Indian Scientist’s Secret To Better Lives: The Humble Chickpea

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Indian scientist Rajeev Varshney has spent decades getting to know everything about the chickpea, plumbing the depths of its genome to unlock secrets of yield, nutrition, drought tolerance and pest and disease resistance.

Varshney, who is currently the research program director for Genetic Gains at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), says chickpea grown in more than 50 countries and is one of the most important and low-cost sources of protein, as well as a rich source of many micro-nutrients and fiber.

He says that despite its importance as a daily staple, until recently, not much was really known about the genetics of the chickpea as recently as 2005.

“This was a challenge,  so in 2010, I led an international consortium for ICRISAT which embarked on decoding and assembling the chickpea genome by harnessing the full potential of Next Generation Sequencing technology,” Varshney says, adding that 28000 genes were then identified.

“We identified genomic regions/genes associated with over 30 traits including drought tolerance and disease resistance (e.g. Fusarium wilt) in chickpea,” he says.

Varshney and his team were then able to develop a low-cost genotyping panel that allows any breeding program to screen their plants for these genes, for just $1 to $1-50 per sample (including DNA extraction cost).

The hope is that this can help farmers more quickly select for crops that have drought tolerance and resistance to plant diseases like Fusarium wilt and Ascochyta blight. 

Inspired By The “Father Of The Green Revolution.”

Varshney was born in Bahjoi, a small town in the western Uttar Pradesh, India’s fourth largest and most populous state, which is roughly the size of the United Kingdom.

“Like rest of India, agriculture is the leading occupation of most people in my home town and essential for economic development,” he says.

After schooling in Bahjoi, Varshney graduated with Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Botany with specialization in Genetics, Plant Breeding and Molecular Biology from Aligarh Muslim University, India.

But his Eureka moment came when he was at a conference talk given by Nobel Peace Prize winner and “father of the green revolution” Norman Bourlaug.

“Professor Borlaug, while discussing the Green Revolution and challenged the next-generation of scientists to embrace new tools and technologies to tackle food security issues in the developing world, “Varshney says, “Professor Borlaug’s challenge was, to me, an early career researcher, the impetus to take up upstream research to improve crops for yield, nutrition and climate resilience: I had my epiphany at that conference.”

Varshney says that not long after, he knew he couldn’t continue working on the genomics of malting quality in barley, especially when he didn’t drink alcohol and hailed from a part of the world when there was a dire need to integrate genomics in plant breeding for the sake of producing more and healthy food. 

“The Global South, where the world’s poorest reside, is set to be affected disproportionately by climate change,” he says, adding that it is also home to the harshest landscapes to farm and will see a far higher growth in population that is not commensurate with its food production capacity.

“The challenges of the global south warrant home-grown solutions that are adapted to changes in agriculture that the challenges drive and Chickpea is again a case in point,” he says.

Another Indian researcher helping farmers in the Global South is Jagannath Biswakarma.

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