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Genome Mapping Could Lead to Cheaper and More Abundant Quinoa

New data on the “superfood” could help breed varieties that require less processing and can thrive in poor soil conditions

Flowering quinoa (Wikimedia Commons/Christian Guthier)
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Quinoa is commonly considered the ultimate "superfood." Packed with protein, vitamins and minerals, this South American grain was once revered by the Inca, but its fanbase has grown worldwide. Now, as Reuters reports, new research into the genome of the grain shows that it has potential to be even more super—and, perhaps, cheaper to produce.

An international team of researchers mapped the genome of quinoa, determining that the grain has 1.3 billion nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA) spread over 18 chromosomes. The hope is that access to the genome will help researchers figure out how to breed more productive strains of quinoa that could be cultivated in food insecure areas of the globe with harsh growing conditions. The research appears this week in the journal Nature.

“Having the genome would enable the wider community both to study how this plant does all the amazing things it does, and also use that knowledge of the genome to make much faster and greater improvements in the crop, improvements that really haven't been so easy to do over the past couple of decades,” Mark Tester, leader of the project and professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia tells Mengqi Sun at The Christian Science Monitor.

Quinoa was an important food crop in the Andes when the Spanish arrived in South America in the 1500s, according to a press release. Because it had religious significance for the Inca, the Spanish forbade the cultivation of quinoa and forced the Inca to grow wheat instead, Reuters reports. As European grains became more prevalent, quinoa, which was not as easy to grow or process, the superfood couldn't keep pace on a global stage.

One reason quinoa has only recently become popular outside the Andes is that the grains are covered by saponins, a bitter tasting substance. That means quinoa needs processing before eating, which raises its cost. On the other hand, it also has the ability to grow at high altitude, in poor soils and even saline conditions, making it an important crop in many parts of the world.

As Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodo reports, outside of its home range, quinoa is currently seen a high-end specialty food. And prices reflect that, tripling between 2006 and 2013 when the grain's popularity grew overseas. Tester, however, thinks the grain has the potential to be as common and cheap as rice if breeders can produce the right varieties.

“[The goal is to] move this crop from its current status as a crop of importance in South America, and a crop of novelty in the West, to become a true commodity in the world,” he tells Cici Zhang at Popular Science. “I’d like to see quinoa changed into a crop that can be grown much more widely and become much cheaper. I want the price to come down by a factor of five…I want it out of the health food section.”

The hope is that other researchers will use the genome data to find other adaptations that will help scientists breed strains of quinoa for various soils and climates around the world. “For example, we discovered mutations which ensure that certain quinoa varieties cannot produce bitter tasting saponins,” Robert van Loo, quinoa breeder at Wageningen University in the Netherlands says in the press release. “These 'sweet' varieties do not need to be polished to remove the bitter substances, saving some 15 to 20 per cent. With the new knowledge of quinoa DNA, we can quickly and easily select plants that do not produce bitter substances in the breeding process."

Similar projects with other grains have resulted in new varieties of crops in the last decade. The rice genome, for instance, was first publicly released in 2006. Last week, Chinese scientists announced that they were cultivating new varieties of insect and disease resistant rice based on studies of the rice genome.

But Douglas Cook, the director of the “Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea” at the University of California, Davis, cautions that there is no silver bullet when it comes to solving food insecurity, and that developing new strains of quinoa won’t be a food revolution all on its own.

“Personally, I think it could mean an important part of the solution, but it's not going to be a game changer,” he tells Sun. “The places where bigger changes are going to occur are in crops that have already had significant investments and that are already mainstay in the human diet.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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