Once referred to as an “orphan crop” mainly grown by poor farmers, pigeon pea is now set to join the world's league of major food crops with the completion of its genome sequence.

The completed genome sequence of pigeon pea is featured as an advanceonline publication on November 6 on the website of the journal Nature Biotechnology . Thepaperprovides an overview of the structure and function of the genes that define the pigeon pea plant. It also reveals clues on how the genomic sequence can be useful to crop improvement for sustainable food production, particularly in the marginal environments of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.


Years of genome analysis by a global research partnership led by the city-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) have resulted in the identification of 48,680 pigeon pea genes. A couple of hundreds of these genes were found unique to the crop in terms of drought-tolerance, an important trait that can be transferred to other similar crops like soybean, cowpea or common bean that belong to the same family, according to a note released by ICRISAT here on Monday.

Pigeon pea is the first “non-industrial crop” and the second food legume (after soybean) with a completed genome sequence.

‘Poor people's meat'

The crop, grown on about 5 million hectares in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South-Central America, is a very important food legume for millions of the poor in the semi-arid regions of the world. Known as the “poor people's meat” because of its high protein content, it provides a well-balanced diet when accompanied with cereals.

“The mapping of the pigeon pea genome is a breakthrough that could not have come at a better time. Now that the world is faced with hunger and famine, particularly in the Horn of Africa, brought about by the worst drought of the decade, science-based sustainable agricultural development solutions are vital in extricating vulnerable dry land communities out of poverty and hunger for good,” says ICRISAT Director-General William D. Dar.

‘Good genes'

Rajeev Varshney, lead scientist and coordinator for the pigeon pea genome sequencing project, explains how the breakthrough could unlock pigeon pea's potential. “Having the pigeon pea genome sequence as a reference will significantly speed up and reduce the cost of screening the ‘good genes' within the stored pigeon pea seed collections in gene banks like that of ICRISAT. This also means dramatically reducing the cost of developing new improved varieties for farmers,” he says.

“The pigeon pea collaboration with ICRISAT is a milestone in the partnership between India and China — showcasing the excellent working dynamics and understanding among Indian and Chinese genomics scientists. I hope more partnerships like this will be established in the future, and I believe this will surely bring a significant difference to the whole world,” says Professor Huanming Yang, Chairman of BGI-Shenzhen.

Global research

The sequencing was accomplished by a global research partnership of the International Initiative for Pigeon pea Genomics (IIPG), led by ICRISAT, with partners such as BGI –Shenzhen (China), U.S. research laboratories like University of Georgia, University of California-Davis, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and the National Centre for Genome Resources, along with support from the Mexico-based CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme.

  • ICRISAT has identified 48,680 pigeon pea genes, many of which have been found drought-tolerant
  • The crop is grown in semi-arid regions of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South-Central America