An international team of scientists has sequenced the genome of a climate-resilient bean that could enhance food security in drought-prone regions. The hyacinth bean, also known as the lablab bean, or Lablab purpureus, is cultivated throughout the tropics and is native to Africa.
It produces highly nutritious beans that are used for food and livestock feed. The plant is drought-resilient and thrives in various environments and conditions, contributing to food and economic security while improving soil fertility by fixing nitrogen.
The sequencing of the lablab bean’s genome could lead to more extensive cultivation of the crop and bring much-needed diversity to the global food system. It is also used medicinally in some areas and contains bioactive compounds with pharmacological potential.
Lead author Chris Jones, program leader for feed and forage development at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) based in Kenya, said, “When it comes to valuing a crop, people often focus on its global market value in US dollars.
“However, for farmers who struggle to produce enough food, the value of a crop like lablab is incredibly high. Although it may be cultivated on a smaller scale compared to major crops, its impact on food security can be significant, and we need to recognise that.”
Researchers have identified the genomic location of significant agronomic traits, which relate to yield and seed/plant size. They also documented the organisation of the trypsin inhibitor genes, which inhibit a key enzyme in the digestion process in humans. This discovery offers opportunities for targeted breeding to reduce these anti-nutritional properties.
The study’s co-lead author, Mark Chapman, associate professor at the University of Southampton, said, “This is an exciting finding, and it opens the door to studying whether agronomic traits can evolve more than once using the same genes, or if different pathways can evolve to give the same outcome. Compiled, this information offers a valuable resource for genetic improvement.”
The lablab bean is one of many “orphan crops” – indigenous species that play an essential role in local nutrition and livelihoods but receive little attention from breeders and researchers. The global food system is vulnerable to environmental and social instabilities due to the little diversity in crop cultivation.
Underutilised crops like lablab hold the key to diversified and climate-resilient food systems, and genome-assisted breeding is a promising strategy to improve their productivity and adoption.
Another lead author, Oluwaseyi Shorinola from the International Livestock Research Institute and a visiting scientist at the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom said, “The first green revolution was achieved with major crops like wheat and rice. Orphan crops like lablab could pave the way for the next green revolution.”
The research process was ground-breaking for its inclusivity and African-led leadership. Meki Shehabu, a co-author of the study and a scientist at ILRI in Ethiopia, said, “Although many African indigenous crops have been sequenced in the past few years, in most of that work African scientists have been underrepresented, and when we’ve been involved, we have been in the back seat. What makes this project special is that it is led by African scientists, in collaboration with scientists from international institutes.”
The team overcame contextual constraints, including the continent’s lack of sequencing facilities and high-performance computing infrastructure, as well as the bioinformatics capacity required, by using new low-cost portable sequencing platforms, carrying out in-depth capacity building, and facilitating equitable international collaboration.
The sequencing of the lablab bean’s genome could inspire genetic improvement work on lablab and other underutilised indigenous crops to increase food and feed availability on the African continent and beyond.