In a recent article published in the journal, Nature, researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia have reported on the first high-quality sequence of the Chenopodium quinoa genome. The grain has grown in popularity in recent years due to its gluten-free status and the fact that it is a complete protein, however demand far outstrips supply for the grain.
According to the researchers, before the quinoa genome was sequenced, few resources were available for breeding efforts. This, along with the fact that the crop is only grown in select countries – namely, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador where temperatures are cool and the altitudes are high – explain why quinoa demands such a high price tag.
Using single-molecule real-time sequencing, optical, chromosome-contact and genetic maps, the researchers were able to assemble a reference genome sequence for a coastal Chilean variety of quinoa. The researchers also sequenced a few of quinoa’s ancestors, which could facilitate the identification of sub-species of the grain.
“By sequencing the genome, we have provided the foundation to enable breeders to work much faster and more powerfully,” said senior study author Dr. Mark Tester, professor of plant science at the Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division of KAUST. “Especially the seeds, they will be able to develop a lot more varieties for different conditions, they will help us make a designer plant.”
Tester and his team have already put the newly-sequenced quinoa genome to use. Before quinoa seeds are ready for consumption, bitter compounds known as saponins must be removed. This process contributes to the cost of quinoa, but the researchers believe they may have identified the gene that encodes the compounds.
“We’ve pinpointed one of the genes that we believe controls the production of saponins in quinoa which would facilitate the breeding of plants without saponins to make the seeds taste sweeter,” said Tester. “For the saponins, that benefit can now be delivered to farmers through conventional breeding.”
According to Tester, their breeding efforts will also focus on producing shorter plants that are more resistant to tipping over and breaking. New quinoa breeds could also be produced to thrive in other environments around the world, potentially increasing production and lowering cost to consumers.
“We need the price of quinoa to go down by a factor of five,” said Tester. “If we get to a similar price to wheat it can be used in processing and in bread making and in many other foods and products. It has the chance to truly add to current world food production.”