AN EXHAUSTIVE study by University of Southern Queensland (USQ) researchers has taken a deep dive in to the chickpea family tree, with potential benefits in terms of improved pest resistance.
The team worked with wild types of chickpeas from Turkey barely recognisable as any kind of relative to the large seeded, pale domesticated chickpea of today.
But while they are never going to win any points for seed quality, these wild relatives hold a number of valuable genetic material.
In particular, the USQ team are excited about resistance to nematodes found in the material they investigated.
The wild relatives had markedly better resistant to root lesion nematode, one of the most damaging pests in the northern Australian chickpea industry.
The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) estimates that susceptible chickpea varieties in the northern cropping zone where the bulk of the nation's chickpeas are produced can lose between 20-40 per cent of their yield with severe root lesion nematode infestations.
The tiny pests, shaped like worms, extract nutrients from plant roots, thus weakening the plant.
The pests cause damage not only to pulse crops but also to cereals such as wheat and sorghum.
Rebecca Zwart from USQ's Centre for Crop Health said the world-first investigation has the potential to greatly benefit Australian chickpea growers.
But growers will not just benefit during the chickpea phase.
Dr Zwart said even when nematode resistant varieties were planted the pests could survive and then build up again once there is a crop type susceptible to attack.
"That's why it is important for farmers to have resistant varieties for all the crops that they grow," she said.
Fellow project researcher Roslyn Reen said around 30 per cent of the wild chickpea species from Turkey were found to be significantly more resistant to root-lesion nematodes than the least susceptible Australian chickpea variety.
She said pulse breeders would relish having different genetic material to work with to boost resistance.
"Chickpea itself doesn't have a diverse gene pool to work with so looking to its relatives for clues is important, and our research has shown that there are two wild species, that can be crossed with commercial grown chickpea varieties to offer greater nematode resistance," Mrs Reen said.
While the discovery is welcome it is still a long way off being able to be used in a commercial variety.
"The next step will be looking for the genes that cause resistance in these wild chickpea species and tagging them with molecular marker," Mrs Reen said.
"In this way, the new resistance genes can be tracked through the breeding process to ensure that when the wild relatives are crossed with chickpea they pass on the resistance genes through the family tree to future Australian chickpea varieties," she said.
"Having more effective genes for resistance will protect chickpea crops from yield loss as well as reduce residual populations of root-lesion nematode in the soil. Long term we'd hope this results in more flexible farming rotations with other crops to allow for increased profit and opportunities for Australian farmers."