A team of researchers led by Africans have successfully sequenced the genome of the hyacinth bean, also known as the lablab bean. The crop is extremely resilient to drought and has the potential to enhance food security in regions prone to water scarcity.
The sequencing of the bean’s genome presents an opportunity to cultivate the crop more widely and bring diversity to the global food system while also providing nutritional and economic benefits.
The lablab bean is indigenous to Africa and is grown extensively in the tropics. It produces highly nutritious beans that are used for food and livestock feed, and it has the added benefits of being highly adaptable to a range of environments and conditions, improving soil fertility by fixing nitrogen, and being used medicinally in some areas.
The researchers identified the genomic location of important agronomic traits, including yield and seed/plant size, as well as the organisation of trypsin inhibitor genes, which inhibit a key enzyme in human digestion. This discovery provides opportunities for targeted breeding to reduce anti-nutritional properties.
The researchers also tracked the history of lablab’s domestication and confirmed that it occurred in parallel in two different places.
This finding offers a valuable resource for genetic improvement and 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.
The lablab bean is one of many “orphan crops,” indigenous species that play an important role in local nutrition and livelihoods but receive little attention from breeders and researchers.
With so little diversity in crop cultivation, the global food system is vulnerable to environmental and social instabilities.
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.
The researchers also highlighted the importance of recognizing the high value of a crop like lablab for farmers who struggle to produce enough food.
The study was groundbreaking for its inclusivity and leadership by African scientists, addressing challenges such as the continent’s relative lack of sequencing facilities and high-performance computing infrastructure.
The team anticipates that the resource will inspire genetic improvement work on lablab and other underutilized indigenous crops to increase food and feed availability in Africa and beyond.