About the Pulse Crop Genetic Improvement Network

The Pulse Crop Genetic Improvement Network (PCGIN) is a platform that serves the process of legume (pulse) crop improvement in the UK.

It is funded by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

The network:

  • Establishes the route by which scientific resources, results and knowledge are delivered to breeders, producers and end users, providing a link between these groups and the research base to achieve added value for pulse crops
  • Provides resources, expertise and understanding that are drawn upon by both public and commercial sectors in breeding and in the definition and improvement of product quality, relating to both commercial and public goods
  • Promotes and executes the translation of genomic research tools to crop improvement, consistent with both the needs of UK industry, and Defra objectives relating to sustainable agriculture
  • Provides links with, and involvement in, pulse crop research programmes in mainland Europe and worldwide

Pulse crops and Defra policy objectives

Within the current environmental, political and economic context, the energy efficiency of agriculture is becoming increasingly important. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture need to be minimised. Nitrogen fertiliser is a major energy demand in agriculture and its production, transport and use are major contributors to N2O emissions. Crop diversification and lowering inputs are major drivers for sustainable agricultural policy.

Pulse crops can contribute positively to these two policy goals because, as a consequence of biological nitrogen fixation, they require minimal inputs while acting as a very effective break crop in a cereal dominated rotation. Pulse crops therefore minimise the negative impact of both the application of nitrogen fertiliser and its production, through reducing the demand for nitrogen fertiliser for pulse and subsequent crops.

To achieve the benefits of pulse crops, legumes need to fit within farmers’ economic models. A major cause of their limited contribution is farmers’ perception that pulse crops have erratic performance.

The yield potential of pulse crops is high but even the best UK yields usually fall short of their potential by about 25%. There are many causes for this, but efforts to improve yield consistency through genetics and breeding have the potential to lead to increased pulse production in the UK. Thus there is a need to make legume crops more attractive to farmers, and to increase the market value of their product. These two requirements are linked to the major strands of PCGIN activity.

The first is being addressed through the improvement of crop performance and reliability, by establishing the genetic basis for agronomic traits such as standing ability, yield and disease. This will address major problems in growing pulse crops, as defined by breeders and growers.

Yield per se is a complex trait linked to several components: plant architecture, disease and resource allocation, all genetically determined to a large extent. Although commercial lines having greater resistance to lodging are available now for pea, there are no reliable genetic markers associated with the trait and its genetic complexity is poorly understood.

Genetic resistance markers have been defined for powdery mildew in pea, but none has been described for downy mildew, an oomycete that has a large impact in diminishing yield in both pea and in faba bean. Most of the seed treatments for this disease have been withdrawn or are restricted temporally in their application, making the discovery of disease resistance genes an even more urgent priority.

PCGIN research has identified regions of the genetic map which are linked to the determination of yield and to resistance to specific isolates of downy mildew, traits that are now being studied intensively using newly derived genomic sequences.

Pulse crops and food/feed quality

Pulse crops are an efficient source of plant-derived protein for food and animal feed.

There is now a growing global demand for pea protein, largely as a replacement for animal-derived products for human consumption. In parallel, there is a growing awareness that food systems need to be transformed to protect human health as well as that of the planet.

Pulse consumption is linked to positive effects on many aspects of human health, including the prevention of Type 2 diabetes and obesity, the consequences of which consume a large proportion of the NHS budget.

Increasing the market value of pulse seed products will depend on genetic studies that define and underpin the traits that limit quality and provide sources of new alleles of genes that impact on significant compositional traits, including the content of protein and resistant starch.

For the high premium export markets available to pulse growers in the UK, visual traits are extremely important as quality determinants. Of these, colour stability can determine whether seeds reach export grade or are classified as lower value feed.

For animal feed, improved digestibility of seed components is an important goal in minimising eutrophicating waste, while improving animal growth performance. In faba bean, a major problem affecting quality and yield has been posed by bruchid beetle attack in recent years. This and additional problems have highlighted the need to develop new resources and wider genetic variation in faba bean, which are now being generated within PCGIN research.

Pulse Crop Genetic Improvement Network objectives 2018 – 2023

The current PCGIN objectives are being addressed through four work packages (WP1 – WP4), each with a designated leader, with genetics underpinning all activities.

Work Package 1: A platform that supports UK pulse crop improvement (Leader: S. Belcher, Processors and Growers Research Organisation)

  • WP1.1: Maintain and develop the platform which supports the PCGIN network and knowledge dissemination
  • WP1.2: Disseminate via newsletter, scientific articles and conferences the results of scientific research and their relevance to the pulse industry

Work Package 2: Genetic knowledge and resources for plant and seed traits in pea and faba bean, including components of yield, major disease and seed quality traits (Leader: C. Domoney, John Innes Centre)

  • WP2.1: Use the PCGIN recombinant inbred pea lines to identify genetic markers indicative of principal yield components
  • WP2.2: Develop gene-specific marker data for durable downy mildew (DM) resistance in pea and faba bean
  • WP2.3: Develop resistance to Ascochyta fabae and Botrytis fabae in faba bean
  • WP2.4: Explore potential for root rot resistance and generating pre-breeding material for industry
  • WP2.5: Generate novel beneficial variants for seed composition to meet market demand

Work Package 3: Develop toolkits for UK legume crop breeding programmes (Leader: T. Wood, NIAB)

  • WP3.1: Provide novel genetic tools, resources and assays for pea and faba bean to breeders
  • WP3.2: Provide access to germplasm, including both natural and induced variants
  • WP3.3: Provide enhanced genetic maps and marker information for research and breeding programmes

Work Package 4: Maximise opportunities for UK legume crop improvement through UK and European collaborations (Leader: D. O’Sullivan, University of Reading)

  1. Underpinning science
  2. Strategic (goal-oriented) research
  3. International – EU
  4. International – Overseas/ODA