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Quinoa genome sequenced

Knowledge of supergrain’s genetics could improve cultivation and production

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
February 8, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 7

Credit: Linda Polik/KAUST
Quinoa grows in a greenhouse at KAUST.
A stem of the quinoa plant
Credit: Linda Polik/KAUST
Quinoa grows in a greenhouse at KAUST.

Scientists have produced the first high-quality genomic sequence for the South American supergrain quinoa, a feat that may lead to improvements in the grain’s properties and the expansion of its cultivation worldwide (Nature 2016, DOI: 10.1038/nature21370).

First domesticated in the Andes about 7,000 years ago, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) has recently come into vogue as a nutritional powerhouse, with its high quantities of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The United Nations even proclaimed 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.

But despite its potential as a significant food source for an expanding world population, the lack of knowledge about its genetic makeup has hindered its widespread cultivation.

A large international team led by Mark Tester, professor of plant science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), mapped out the plant’s complex, 1.5-gigabase genome using a number of sequencing strategies, including single-molecule real-time sequencing, as well as optical and chromosome-contact mapping.

Having the quinoa genome on hand might reduce traditional plant breeding times by half, notes Karina B. Ruiz, a plant physiologist at the University of Bologna, who studies the biology of quinoa in stressful environments.

chemical structure of quinoa saponin 9
Saponin 9 is one of a group of bitter compounds that coat quinoa grains.

The work may also address one of quinoa’s most vexing properties. The grains are coated with saponins, a class of triterpene glycosides that are bitter-tasting and foamy. To make the grain palatable, producers must rinse it thoroughly, which means quinoa cultivation can stress increasingly scarce water supplies.

Tester’s team identified a gene that they believe is responsible for regulating quinoa’s production of saponins. This new information may allow scientists to engineer strains with reduced saponin levels.

Andrew H. Paterson at the University of Georgia and Alan L. Kolata at the University of Chicago note in a perspective accompanying the research that the sequencing technology employed by Tester’s group may find use beyond quinoa. “Sequencing the genomes of other neglected food crops could lay the foundations for further contributions to global food security,” they write.


This article has been translated into Spanish by and can be found here.



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