8) ICRISAT and UC Davis to boost nitrogen fixation of legumes

A $1.7 million research grant has been awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), USA under its Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program to Professor of plant pathology Dr Douglas Cook at the University of California, Davis and Dr Rajeev Varshney at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), to fund research on nitrogen fixation in legumes, the plant family that includes chickpea, pigeonpeas, beans, peanuts and alfalfa.

Legumes are known for their ability to "fix" or assimilate nitrogen from the atmosphere. However, centuries of crop domestication (developing cultivated species from wild species) has reduced the ability of certain crop legumes, such as chickpea, to fix atmospheric nitrogen compared to their wild relatives.

Researchers hope that the grant will eventually help lift the world's neediest farmers out of poverty, by leading to new crop plants that wouldn’t require applications of expensive nitrogen fertilizer if they could produce sufficient quantities of their own nitrogen.

“This kind of basic research will lead to the identification of genes that control the nitrogen fixing capacity, and we hope that these genes will eventually help in developing more efficient legume crops,” said ICRISAT Director General Dr William Dar, while congratulating researchers on winning this grant proposal.

“I appreciate the efforts of NSF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which are jointly funding basic research through BREAD. This will have significant implications on the livelihood of poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia,” Dr Dar added.

Dr Cook and colleagues, including Dr Varshney will work on chickpea to explore how domestication has impacted nitrogen fixation in legumes. They will use recent advances in DNA technologies in combination with molecular-genetic analysis to identify the genes that control nitrogen fixation. Once identified, those genes could potentially be used either in classical plant breeding or molecular approaches to improve the capacity for nitrogen fixation in other legume crops as well.

The three-year award is one of the 15 grants totally worth $20 million given to researchers as part of the BREAD
program.

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