Yolo County startup releases high-protein chickpea variety

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By Caleb Hampton
McNaughton Media

NuCicer, a Davis-based plant genetics company, has developed a new chickpea variety that contains 75 percent more protein content than other chickpeas, the company announced Monday in a press release. “This will slash the cost of chickpea protein nearly in half,” NuCicer CEO and co-founder Kathryn Cook said.

The plant genetics startup spun out of research conducted at UC Davis over the past 10 years. “NuCicer’s background chickpea germplasm stems from international research projects spanning the last decade led by Professor Douglas R. Cook,” the company said in its press release. “International researchers trekked through southeastern Turkey with permission from local authorities to collect thousands of samples of wild crop progenitors.”

The ultra-high protein chickpeas were developed naturally using wild genetic diversity. By crossbreeding wild plants with cultivated chickpea varieties, the scientists were able to multiple the available genetic diversity by 40 times, according to NuCicer. This enabled them to develop traits in the chickpeas that don’t exist on their own in the cultivated or wild plants.

“NuCicer uses this extraordinary genetic potential to bring high-value traits such as increased protein content to market and contributes back to global biodiversity and food security efforts through an international treaty with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,” the press release stated. “The company is now scaling operations with a plan for commercial protein and flour ingredient production in 2023.”

There is enormous opportunity to commercialize the research, Cook said, citing the recent success of Benson Hill Biosystems, which produces high-protein soybeans and was recently publicly listed for $2 billion.

Chickpeas already enjoy global popularity as the third most widely grown grain legume. A significant nutrition source in countries around the world, chickpeas are recognized by the United Nations as a key global crop for the world’s food system. According to NuCicer, the company’s high-protein chickpeas now make the legume cost-competitive with other plant proteins, including soy, wheat and pea.

“Chickpeas are the ideal plant protein, with a neutral flavor and color, excellent functionality, and positive consumer sentiment,” Cook said. “Now for the first time, NuCicer’s new varieties – the product of ten 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.”

According to the company, its new chickpea varieties will enable the production of more sustainable and affordable gluten-free flours and whole bean products. NuCicer is also working to increase the crop’s yield and stability by incorporating traits for resilience to environmental factors like heat and drought.

“We are excited by our initial progress and the breadth of opportunity as we begin to partner with leading food and beverage brands,” Cook said. “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.”

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