Raiders of the lost gene

Mr Bob Reid: Ecuadorean adventures on the trail of the lost broad bean.

Bob Reid has travelled through time to ensure that Australian agriculture remains competitive. A plant breeder from Primary Industries Tasmania, Mr Reid recently travelled to Ecuador on a centuries-old rail in pursuit of gene material to include in his broad bean (Vicia faba) breeding program.

"I guess time travel is a good way to describe what we've done, because in Ecuador we have access to the original genetic material taken out by the Spanish 400 years ago," Dr Reid said.

"It has been selectively bred by Ecuador farmers over that time, and other material included from Spain up until about 100 years ago, but it is still the best place to get close to the original germplasm, or genetic material.

"On this trip we were able to bring back more than 150 samples including a range of plants that show resistance to botrytis and tolerance of chocolate spot," he said.

The Australians idn't go emptyhanded. In a reciprocal agreement, they brought the Ecuadoreans Australian eucalypts which are adapted to high altitude, low rainfall growing conditions. These varieties may provide a solution to the pressing need for firewood in the poorer high altitude areas of Ecuador.

Relic found

Furthering the time-travel adventure, the team also found what they believe to be a surviving example of "perhaps the first legume developed by man".

"We were also collecting peas and went into a remote valley where we heard the locals were growing Garbanzo beans, which we know as chickpeas," Dr Reid said.

"But when we got there we found it was in fact Lathyrussativus, a primitive legume (related to modern vetch) which they mistakenly believed was chickpea because of the large seed size.

"It's a hardy standby drought crop, and because seed size is so important in legumes, if we could develop this crop to the stage where it is economical to harvest, it has potential as a new crop for Australia."

Broadening the gene pool

Botrytis and chocolate spot are the two main diseases facing broad bean growers in southern Australia. Overseas collection trips greatly improve breeders' chances of incorporating resistance or tolerance to these diseases into Australian broad bean varieties.

The research is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), with support from growers through the GRDC. It is part of a wider project to collect genetic material from around the world, managed by the Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture in Western Australia.

While international collection of genetic material is crucial to the robustness of Australian agriculture, Dr Reid said gaining access in future years will require diplomacy and reciprocity. "Developing nations, where much of this material is located, realise that their genetic material is an asset which they should not just give away," Dr Reid said.

Sharing genetic resources

"We were able to gain access to 400 years of broad bean breeding in Ecuador because of our previous cooperation with them (Dr Reid has provided the Ecuadoreans with lupins and pastures for their breeding programs), and because on this trip we took over a range of material to share with them."