Saudi-Aussie scientists could be on the road to sweeter quinoa

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The first high-quality reference genome for quinoa, the hipster's favourite grain, has been revealed through a Saudi-Australian research partnership.

The findings are published online in the journal Nature, detailing how the new resource will assist genetic improvement and breeding strategy efforts for quinoa. The researchers behind it believe their work give the potential to enhance global food security.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a highly nutritious, gluten-free, low-glycaemic-index staple “mother grain” that contains an excellent balance of essential amino acids, fibre, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. It is also able to grow under a wide range of environmental conditions.

However, it is still under-utilised as a crop, and breeding efforts to improve its agronomic traits are required to expand its worldwide production.

Though it was used to fuel ancient Andean civilisations, it was neglected by Spanish colonisers and has only recently seen interest in it revived as a superfood.

This means quinoa has never been fully domesticated or bred to its full potential even though it provides a more balanced source of nutrients for humans than cereals,” said King Abdullah University of Science and Technology professor of plant science, Mark Tester. 

With colleagues at Melbourne University, he sequenced the genome of a Chilean coastal variety of quinoa, along with the genomes of additional Chenopodium species to characterise quinoa’s genetic diversity and understand the evolution of its genome.

They used a combination of techniques, including cutting-edge sequencing technologies and genetic mapping, to piece together full chromosomes of C. quinoa. Their resulting genome is the “highest-quality quinoa sequence to date”, and it is already yielding insights into the plant’s traits and growth mechanisms.

The researchers further analysed the genomic data to identify a gene that regulates the production of saponins, a bitter-tasting molecule that is found in the quinoa seed shell, which must be removed before human consumption.

The genetic markers that they identified may now be used to develop non-bitter or sweet commercial varieties of quinoa with reduced saponin levels.

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,” Prof. Tester said.

The study concluded that its findings now provide a foundation for accelerating the genetic improvement of quinoa, with the objective of enhancing global food security for a growing world population.

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