Improved chickpea drought tolerance targeted

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University of Sydney GRDC senior lecturer Dr Helen Bramley with some of her glasshouse chickpea trials at the Narrabri Plant Breeding Institute in northern NSW. Dr Bramley is leading a GRDC research investment to improve the yield stability of chickpeas by searching for drought-tolerant genotypes.

PHOTO: Nicole Baxter

New researchers join challenge

University of Sydney postdoctoral research associates Dr Sarah Purdy and Dr Purushothaman Ramamoorthy in chickpea trials at the Narrabri Plant Breeding Institute.

PHOTO: Julie Lintz

Dr Purushothaman Ramamoorthy, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney, says chickpeas are mostly grown under low-rainfall conditions. This is why looking for chickpeas that use stored soil moisture more efficiently is an avenue that may help improve yields generally.

“I plan to assess how chickpea water use varies over time and the hydraulic properties of chickpeas under late season or terminal drought, which is common in most chickpea-growing regions of Australia,” Dr Ramamoorthy says.

To do this, he will screen a wide range of germplasm, including locally adapted cultivars, international and wild material, for water use and yield. He plans to manipulate the plant’s environment and use special equipment to measure the rate of water flow through different parts of the plant, and monitor changes in gene expression.

Dr Ramamoorthy says this will allow him to identify the mechanisms or traits governing total water use in chickpeas.

Drought risk marker

Meanwhile, Dr Sarah Purdy, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney, is investigating the biochemistry of chickpea varieties when they are growing healthily under well-watered conditions.

She plans to compare these biochemical profiles with the same varieties under late-season or terminal drought conditions: “The aim is to find chemical signatures that can be used to identify new crosses that yield well under drought,” she says.

“Ultimately, I want to find a chemical marker that will predict if a new chickpea variety will be a drought risk.”

More information:

Dr Purushothaman Ramamoorthy
0439 653 534

Dr Sarah Purdy
0458 051 144

Ambitious new research is underway in Australia to develop chickpeas more tolerant to drought.

The research, led by Dr Helen Bramley, a GRDC senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, is being conducted through the Legumes for Sustainable Agriculture Research Hub, an investment of the GRDC and the Australian Research Council.

To stabilise yields, Dr Bramley says researchers at the University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute, near Narrabri in northern New South Wales, hope to develop traits in a pre-breeding pipeline that can be fed into Pulse Breeding Australia’s chickpea breeding program.

One of the first tasks for Dr Bramley has been to appoint two postdoctoral research associates for the work.

In April, Dr Purushothaman Ramamoorthy joined the team from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India, and Dr Sarah Purdy started work at the University of Sydney’s IA Watson Grains Research Centre in Narrabri after leaving her job at Aberystwyth University in the UK. Both researchers will be working on chickpea drought tolerance.

Dr Bramley says a challenge with chickpea is it does not have clearly defined growth stages like canola and wheat.

“You can pretty accurately characterise the phenology of wheat, such as when it flowers, which enables plants to be targeted to a particular climatic region,” she says.

“Chickpeas, however, just keep growing if there is enough moisture, even at the end of the season, which makes life difficult for growers who want to harvest the crop.”

Dr Bramley says previous research has shown there is diversity in the drought tolerance of different chickpea lines and many unknowns to explore.

“We are trying to understand the mechanisms, especially at the reproductive and pod-filling stages because that is when chickpeas are most susceptible to drought stress,” she says.

“We want to find germplasm with a more determinant nature so we can fit chickpeas into a window where they are not too exposed to frost but flower and pod-fill at the right time.”

Also, Dr Bramley says, a chickpea with plenty of early vigour develops a canopy at an accelerated rate, which should reduce soil moisture loss through evaporation.

“However, we found there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference in the water use of different chickpea lines, which is surprising because we noticed different sized plants even though they were established at the same density,” she says.

“We don’t know if the result was because season 2016 was particularly wet, but  we are trying to understand why this occurred.”

With her background in plant water use and hydraulics, Dr Bramley wants to find out how quickly water moves through different chickpea lines, how different chickpea lines limit water uptake and what the interaction is between root water capture and the loss of water to the atmosphere through the stomata (in the leaves).

Answering these questions would be a step closer to identifying lines that can better tolerate drought.

GRDC Research Code US00083

More information:

Dr Helen Bramley,
0477 738 776,