Public Release: 

Progress toward the perfect pea

A group at the John Innes Centre has developed peas that will help animals absorb more protein from their diet. The study is published in PLOS ONE today.

John Innes Centre


IMAGE: Dr Claire Domoney has developed peas that will help animals absorb more protein from their diet. view more

Credit: The John Innes Centre

A group at the John Innes Centre (JIC) has developed peas that will help animals absorb more protein from their diet. The study is published in PLOS ONE today.

Pea and other legume seeds contain several proteins that stop nutrients being absorbed fully in the intestines. One such class of molecule is the protease inhibitors. These slow down the rate at which humans, poultry or livestock digest proteins by incapacitating the enzymes that break them down. Previous nutritional studies with broiler chickens have shown that peas with proteins which disrupt digestion can reduce protein availability by up to 10%.

Dr Claire Domoney's group has identified and studied peas with mutations in genes coding for the seed protease inhibitors, known as the trypsin/chymotrypsin inhibitors. They found three types of mutation, one of which was in a wild relative of pea, and which completely wiped out the seed's ability to inhibit protein digestion. The other two mutations were generated by mutagenesis and were also effective in reducing the inhibitors, although less dramatically so.

Peas provide a valuable and nutritious crop for human and pet food and animal feed. Dr Domoney's results provide proof of principle for the ways in which food and feedstuffs can be improved through large-scale genetic approaches. The research can be extended to more proteins in pea and other legume crops, where food or feed use may be limited by the same or different seed proteins. Removal of allergenic proteins, for example, is an important goal for improving many food and feed crops.

Dr Claire Domoney said: 'The discovery of a wild pea line, a Pisum elatius line from Turkey which lacks a protein defined as an 'anti-nutrient', is a clear example of the value of diverse germplasm collections. Being able to generate and/or discover genetic variation for traits of interest to growers is essential for improving crop traits. In our case, the wild pea mutant has been crossed readily with the cultivated species, Pisum sativum, providing a headstart for breeders. Mutagenised resources, such as that at INRA, are also an invaluable resource for novel variation. We are now in a good position with new technologies to be able to screen very large numbers of lines for small changes in genes of interest.'

Breeders, including Limagrain and Wherry & Sons, are already showing interest in the new peas. As non-GM methods were used, Dr Domoney expects widespread adoption of the variant pea lines and that the novel peas could reach the market within five years.

Mr Peter Smith, Arable Crops Director at Wherry & Sons Ltd, said: 'The value of genetics and targeted research in pulse crops aids the UK industry in achieving specific needs. The removal of inhibitors in peas is an example of one of many traits which should enable the industry to move forward with a nutritionally improved crop benefiting throughout the food chain. As pulses potentially become grown on a wider scale in the UK we must remain focused on producing a better product in comparison to imported pulses and protein crops.'


This research was funded by Defra Pulse Crop Genetic Improvement Network, EU Grain Legumes Integrated Project and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The JIC pea germplasm collection is part-funded by Defra.

Notes to editors

1. The paper 'Eliminating anti-nutritional plant food proteins: the case of seed protease inhibitors in pea' is available at:

2. Images to accompany this press release can be found at:

3. If you have any questions about the research or would like to interview Dr Domoney please contact:

Geraldine Platten
Communications Manager
John Innes Centre
t: 01603 450 238

4. About the John Innes Centre

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature's diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public.

To achieve these goals we establish pioneering long-term research objectives in plant and microbial science, with a focus on genetics. These objectives include promoting the translation of research through partnerships to develop improved crops and to make new products from microbes and plants for human health and other applications. We also create new approaches, technologies and resources that enable research advances and help industry to make new products. The knowledge, resources and trained researchers we generate help global societies address important challenges including providing sufficient and affordable food, making new products for human health and industrial applications, and developing sustainable bio-based manufacturing.

This provides a fertile environment for training the next generation of plant and microbial scientists, many of whom go on to careers in industry and academia, around the world.

The John Innes Centre is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2013-2014 the John Innes Centre received a total of £31.4 million from the BBSRC.

About the BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see:

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see:

About the EU Grain Legumes Integrated Project

Grain Legumes Integrated Project (GLIP) is a completed large multinational project, co-funded by the European Commission FP6 Framework Programme. Its goal was to develop new strategies to enhance the use of grain legumes crops in food for human consumption and animal feed in Europe and beyond.

Grain legumes such as peas, chickpeas, beans and lupins have a significant role to play in European agriculture because of their value as an important source of vegetable protein for human and animal alike and their beneficial impact on the environment. However, the use of these crops in European farming systems is relatively limited compared with the rest of the world because of problems with nutrition, disease, drought and plant morphology.

The principle objective of the project was to mobilise and integrate the European research effort on grain legumes to address these major agricultural constraints affecting the production of GL crops in Europe. Emphasis was placed on using state-of-the-art methodologies including genomics and bioinformatics, together with transcriptomics and metabolomics. G

LIP promoted a truly integrated approach to addressing the problems of growing grain legumes in Europe and beyond.

About Defra PCGIN

The Pulse Crop Genetic Improvement Network (PCGIN) is a platform that serves the process of legume crop improvement in the UK. It establishes the route by which scientific resources, results and knowledge are delivered to breeders, producers and end users, providing a link between these groups and the research base to achieve added value for pulse crops. It provides resources, expertise and understanding that are drawn upon by both public and commercial sectors in breeding, analysis, and in the definition and improvement of product quality relating to both commercial and public goods. It promotes and executes the translation of genomic research tools to crop improvement, consistent with both the needs of UK industry, and Defra objectives relating to sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, it provides links with, and involvement in, European pulse crop research programmes.

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