Ensuring the production of nutritionally dense food crops, such as pulses, is essential to advance global food security now threatened by climate change.
Lentil is a cool-season food legume that is rich in protein and a range of micronutrients. Its health benefits are at least in part due to its high concentration of prebiotic carbohydrates, or low digestible carbohydrates, such as raffinose-family oligosaccharides (RFOs), fructooligosaccharides (FOSs), sugar alcohols (SAs), and resistant starches (RS).
Mounting evidence indicates that modulating the gut microbiome through consuming prebiotics offers a range of health benefits. Prebiotic carbohydrates are also vital to lentil plant health associated with carbon transport, storage and tolerance to environmental extremes – such as drought, salinity, low or high temperatures.
The lentil may be ideal for assisted breeding programmes to alter the prebiotic carbohydrate concentrations of this staple food crop – to improve both its nutritional benefits and climate resilience.
In a new study, published in Scientific Reports, researchers carry out the first comprehensive genome-wide association study (GWAS) to identify variants that can influence prebiotic carbohydrates levels in the cultivated lentil (Lens culinaris Medikus).1
The team used a variety of analytical techniques to estimate the concentrations of prebiotic carbohydrates in 143 lentil accessions collected from around the world and grown under greenhouse conditions. They found significant variation across the plant population, with ranges corresponding to percent recommended daily allowances of 2–9% SAs, 7–31% RFOs, 51–111% RS, and 57%-116% total prebiotic carbohydrates.
The researchers then performed a GWAS to search for genetic variants and neighbouring candidate genes associated with different carbohydrate concentrations. They revealed heritability estimates ranging from 0.22 to 0.44 for all carbohydrates analysed – and identified specific genetic variants and associated candidate genes for several traits, including an enzyme involved in RFO synthesis.
The team used ultrapure water generated from an ELGA PURELAB® Flex 2 laboratory water purification system for sample and reagent preparation, minimising the risk of adding contaminants that may affect their results.
Lentil prebiotic carbohydrates play a vital role in plant physiology and should be further explored as a way of breeding varieties for changing climates. Additionally, prebiotic carbohydrates are important for human health, specifically for their role in regulating and modulating the gut microbiome.
The results from this study indicate low to medium heritability estimates for prebiotic carbohydrate concentrations in lentil. Further studies at multiple field locations and looking at more genetically diverse lentil populations will be vital to establish the breeding prospects for these traits more conclusively.
These findings suggest the cautious potential for molecular–assisted breeding approaches for prebiotic carbohydrates in lentil. It also highlights the promise within the Lens culinaris species for selecting varieties with high or low prebiotic content as a nutritional trait in breeding programmes.
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Dr Alison Halliday
After completing an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry & Genetics at Sheffield University, Alison was awarded a PhD in Human Molecular Genetics at the University of Newcastle. She carried out five years as a Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UCL, investigating the genes involved in childhood obesity syndrome. Moving into science communications, she spent ten years at Cancer Research UK engaging the public about the charity’s work. She now specialises in writing about research across the life sciences, medicine and health.