Peter works on grass pea (Lathyrus sativus), an ancient food crop with remarkable tolerance to drought and flooding.
These characteristics makes the crop highly valuable for enhancing food security in areas prone to such weather extremes, especially in the face of a changing climate.
Lathyrus sativus is currently cultivated primarily in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. The primary limitation of grass pea is that it produces a toxin – beta-L-ODAP – that can cause paralysis if consumed excessively during an extended period of undernourishment.
While grass pea is safe to eat as part of a normal diet, the fact that the crop can survive weather extremes that would cause other crops to fail, can lead to situations where people rely on grass pea as a staple food to stave off starvation. This puts them at risk of toxicity.
The focus of his work, following on from a PhD at the John Innes Centre, is to remove this toxin and to develop safe varieties of grass pea. To this end, Peter has screened grass peas collected from around the world, as well as a mutagenised population. From this screening, plants with massively reduced levels of beta-L-ODAP have been identified. With our collaborators the team are now using this knowledge to breed new, safe varieties of grass pea for South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
In addition, Peter is investigating the genes involved in the synthesis of the toxin in grass pea. A better understanding of these genes and their physiological roles will help us solve the problem of toxicity once and for all and make use of the full potential of grass pea for food security.