Pea plant genetic discovery could improve broadacre yields

Researchers have discovered a specific gene found in various plants that can be used to extend the duration of seed production in pea plants.

Being monocarpic, pea plants will only flower for a single season before dying. This flowering phase provides the fruits of its labour in the form of pods containing several peas. The amount of peas produced depends in part on the duration for which that plant flowers, with a longer period of flowering potentially supporting more fruit and more seeds.

Pea’s are used in broadacre agriculture, horticulture and are used for human and animal consumption.

Studies done by a team led by the Research Institute for Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology (IBMCP) in Spain, have discovered a gene to extend the period of seed production.

A gene identified as FUL was shown to have direct impact in multiple development processes. More recently, the team uncovered a new role in this gene through extending the length of the flowering phase.

Although studied in the model plant Arabidopsis, the role of this gene in a crop plant, such as peas, had not been previously studied.

IBMCP researchers have now shown that this gene does have an impact on the yield of pea plants, with, under certain conditions, significant increases in peas produced when flowering.

Through manipulation of the pea FUL gene so that it was no longer functional –the length of the flowering phase was increased and this in turn increased the number of pea pods between 30 and 70% and seed production by 45 to 88%.

In their best results, they saw an incredible doubling of seed weight per plant with the parental plant it was bred from.

This discovery could have some big impacts on the future of Australian agriculture, because if this approach works in peas it might work in other crops, particularly other legumes such as chick peas and lentils.

Like other legumes, peas serve as a way to continue farming sustainably, by adding nitrogen back into the soil in between main crops.

Pea plant in the mix to search for heat tolerant crops

They also serve to diversify and improve weed control and avoid herbicide resistant weeds and preserve farm integrity.

Having an improved yield from the pea plants will make peas significantly more economically viable for crop rotation, with a strong correlation between nitrogen produced in peas and number of seed produced.

However, there are still some limitations in how long a harvest can be delayed by prolonged flowering.

Dr Steve Swain, current Science Lead on all things crops at the CSIRO, told Cosmos the harvest will still need to start before water runs dry, or in preparation for following crops.

He says longest is not always better: “optimising the duration of key crop growth phases, including the length of the seed production phase is a key part of maximising yield.”

“Through conventional breeding approaches, this discovery could be used to optimise the seed production phase of a range of crops, and thereby improve yield.”

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