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Engineered Chickpea with Increased Protein Unveiled


Chickpeas (Francesco Angrisani, Pixabay.

21 Dec. 2021. An agricultural biotechnology company is introducing genetically altered chickpeas with much higher protein content than today’s varieties. NuCicer Inc. in Davis, California is a two year-old enterprise spun-off from research labs at University of California in Davis that take part in international projects to improve chickpea yields and resilience.

NuCicer aims to restore the nutritional value of wild-type chickpeas, a staple crop and protein source in many parts of the world. Chickpeas are a legume, a plant in the pea family, grown originally in the Middle East and now in other developing regions, and the second most widely grown food legume. Chickpea seeds are eaten fresh or prepared in a variety of dishes, and ground into flour for bread.

Douglas Cook, a plant biologist at UC-Davis, studies the chickpea, and participates in international research efforts investigating the plant’s genomics and ecology, to boost its nutritional value and ability to withstand stress from climate change. Cook and lab colleagues take part in research funded by USAID, National Science Foundation, Global Crop Diversity Trust, and CGIAR, a global food security research consortium. Among the lab’s research interests is the genetic make-up of wild-type chickpeas, which reflect diverse range of sources contributing to the plant’s original high protein content.

Reinvent the chickpea

Douglas Cook founded NuCicer with technology executive Kathryn Cook and molecular biologist Brendan Riely to develop a commercial chickpea variety reflecting nutritional properties of original wild-type chickpeas. The company says domestication of chickpeas over the years stripped 95 percent of the plant’s original genetic diversity. NuCicer says it uses genomics with computational and micro-breeding techniques to reinvent the chickpea with 50 to 100 percent more protein content than conventional varieties.

The company says its chickpea variety is based on wild-type chickpeas and progenitor species found in Turkey, collected with permission from local authorities, then cross-bred with conventional chickpeas. NuCicer says its chickpea reflects an expanded genetic diversity, with added traits not found in wild or domesticated varieties alone. The company says its high-protein chickpea can be ground into flour free of gluten, soy, and dairy proteins that produce allergic reactions in some people.

“Chickpeas are the ideal plant protein,” says Kathryn Cook in an email statement to Science & Enterprise, “with a neutral flavor and color, excellent functionality, and positive consumer sentiment.” She notes that “NuCicer’s new varieties, the product of 10 years of research amassing and crossbreeding the world’s largest and most systematic collection of wild crop progenitors with cultivated chickpea, will enable chickpea protein to out-compete other leading plant proteins like soy, wheat, and pea.”

Cook adds, “We are in conversations with partners who recognize the opportunity of new ingredients from our high-protein chickpeas and are moving quickly to enable meaningful impact across the agri-food supply chain.” The company says it plans to begin producing commercial protein and flour in 2023.

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