Discovery of the first high-quality genome of quinoa, published in Nature, could help create healthier, tastier varieties of this protein-packed ‘superfood.’
Popular in salads, side dishes and gluten-free recipes, quinoa is an edible seed that is low on the glycemic index, contains every amino acid—the building blocks of our body—and has an excellent balance of fiber, nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
“Quinoa is like nothing else,” said Kevin Murphy, Barley and Alternative Crop Breeder at Washington State University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “It grows well in many different environments and is a complete protein. If any crop deserves to be called a ‘superfood,’ it’s quinoa.”
Genome helps bring new varieties
Murphy helped map the genome as part of an international team led by Mark Tester, scientist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Their discovery – a complete record of quinoa’s genes – could shave up to two years off the 10-year process of bringing healthier new varieties to market. See the Nature article at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature21370.html.
“The consumer is the one who really benefits,” said Murphy, who is breeding quinoa for added nutrition and flavor. “We’ll see more and better quinoa products in stores, and farmers will benefit from having more resilient crops.”
Over the last five years, Murphy tested more than 1,000 varieties of quinoa for heat tolerance, disease resistance and other traits, as part of a $1.6 million USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative grant.
“Our goal was to find varieties of quinoa that farmers can grow right now,” he said.
Murphy chose the best variety for the KAUST team to sequence: a coastal Chilean type that resists heat, yields well and grows almost everywhere.
Working with geneticists from Brigham Young University, WSU researchers developed an ancestral family tree of quinoa, from its origins in the southern United States 3 million years ago to domestication in the coasts and highlands of South America around 5,000 BC.
So long, saponin
For farmers, one of the challenges of growing quinoa is saponin, a bitter compound that coats quinoa seeds, thought to protect them from birds or insects. Saponin is expensive to remove—farmers have to pay for shipment and soaking or abrasion before they can sell their crop.
With the genome, Tester and his colleagues found the genetic marker for saponin, giving scientists the option to selectively breed out the bitter coating.
“We now know exactly where the gene is located,” said Murphy. “It makes breeding saponin-free quinoa so much easier. That’s good news for breeders and farmers.”