As various food crops were domesticated and now, are mass produced, there has been a significant reduction in the number of different strains. There have been efforts to preserve some of these wild, or heirloom varieties, but some food supplies are still vulnerable to potential challenges. A recent, serious example, is the worldwide chickpea shortage. A drought in India caused devastation to the harvest; now prices are spiking in many places. For many people, the chickpea is a critical part of their diet, and it illustrates the importance of maintaining genetic diversity in our crops, which may have to contend with an increasing number of environmental problems like drought and changing temperatures.
"The wild relatives of crop plants are the most promising reserves of genetic diversity," said Eric Bishop von Wettberg, a plant biologist at the University of Vermont (UVM). A recent research study he led investigated the genetics and ecology of chickpea plants. The team found that a significant lack of genetic diversity threatened the adaptability of chickpeas. The team gathered specimens from southeastern Turkey that are wild relatives of chickpeas; von Wettberg said they hold "great promise," and may carry genes that confer tolerance to drought, resistance to insects, and adaptability to heat. The findings were reported in Nature Communications.
On their research expedition in Turkey and Kurdistan, the scientists collected genetic specimens from 839 plants and seeds from 371. There, the chickpea and serval other vital foods were likely domesticated about 10,000 years ago. "The way we found a lot of these populations was by driving around and asking shepherds on the side of the road, 'yabani nohut?' which means 'wild chickpea," von Wettberg said, "then they would take us out in the fields and show us the plants."
They were thus able to learn more about the history of wild relatives to the chickpea, and how they are connected to domestic chickpeas. It turns out that 93% of the genetic variation has been lost because of modern chickpea breeding. That absence of genetic diversity could become a serious problem for the chickpea supply - one bad virus or disaster could destroy the crop. While many hurdles have been overcome in agriculture, the researchers noted that there is a glaring lack of range in crop species.
The scientists sought to find diversity in the genomes of the plants they collected that reflected differences in their environments, like weather, soil, and elevation. They also did a lot of crossbreeding between wild and domestic species. The resulting plants and genomes, "shows a way forward for improving chickpeas and many other crops too," said von Wettberg, a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at UVM.
The researchers noted that there is a critical need to gather and preserve the wild crop varieties. "They are threatened by habitat fragmentation and loss of native landscapes," von Wettberg said. "Where we were collecting plants in 2013 is now a war zone."
Learn more about genetic diversity in plants and the influence of traditional knowledge on agriculture from the video above.