CHICKPEA’S Achilles heel, Phytopthora root rot, has just copped a blow.
Researchers working in the field of breeding resistant crop varieties have just been granted a $2.5 million boost.
The funding will be available across five years: $1.2 million provided by Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), $626,000 from NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI), and research partners Adelaide University ($548,000) and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Queensland ($78,000).
The pathogen Phytopthora medicaginis lies dormant for years in favourable paddocks, but once it gets its hooks into the roots of a waterlogged crop, devastation ensues.
There is no test for its existence. There is no cure.
However, researchers at the DPI’s Tamworth Crop Improvement Centre are working to develop new varieties that can withstand such an onslaught.
The soil-borne disease can establish permanently in low-lying
paddocks used for lucerne, medics and other legumes, and the
best strategy so far for avoiding devastation from the disease is to avoid planting in high-risk paddocks.
Researchers hope to deliver hybrids with wild relatives of chickpea, Cicer echinospermum, that will withstand potential Phytopthora root rot infection.
“Phytophthora is particularly difficult to manage as it cannot be controlled with fungicides, so once a plant is infected there is nothing a grower can do to prevent the loss of production,” said researcher and DPI chickpea breeder Dr Kristy Hobson.
“Currently all chickpea varieties can suffer yield loss under conditions highly favourable to Phytophthora root rot so this research will greatly benefit chickpea growers.”
In announcing government funding this week, NSW Minister for Primary Industries Katrina Hodgkinson said plant diseases caused an estimated annual loss of $24 million to the Australian chickpea industry.
“Phytophthora root rot occurs throughout north-eastern Australia and is by far the most destructive, costing growers on average $8.2m each year,” she said.
Pulse Australia’s senior industry development manager northern region Gordon Cumming said while Phytopthora root rot was a minor disease in terms of area affected in any given year – less than five per cent annually – for those individual cases it can be devastating.
“The disease doesn’t exclude growers from growing chickpeas but it limits the paddocks suitable,” he said.
He said agronomists couldn’t test for the pathogen to determine the risks.
Mr Cumming said Ascochyta blight, spread by rain and affecting the leaves, had a far bigger impact on the sector, but management strategies, including breeding and fungicide options had significantly increased plant resistance.
Growers will have to wait at least five years before the new varieties become available.
The research program follows the work begun by retired breeder Ted Knights, back-crossing desi chickpeas with their wild relatives.
Dr Hobson and DPI plant pathologist Dr Kevin Moore are heading the research in Tamworth.
A project officer undertaking a post doctorate degree will be appointed to the Tamworth site to work with Dr Hobson, while a PhD student will work on molecular structure at the University of Adelaide.
Dr Hobson said the research aimed to mitigate the impact of Phytophthora root rot by transferring the resistance in wild relatives of chickpeas to adapted chickpeas to provide robust protection against the disease.
“This will mean incorporating this resistance into new chickpea varieties using innovative breeding technologies to speed up varietal development,” Dr Hobson said.
“By expanding our knowledge of Phytopthora root rot will ensure that the resistance breeding process is addressing pathogen variability.”