Scientists have managed to decode the quinoa genome in a move that could slash prices.
The crop is one of the most nutritious in the world, but is hugely underused because the demand exceeds the supply.
Quinoa has become a trendy food in recent years, with people in food ingredients jobs finding it in heavy demand thanks to its reputation as a super-food. It is well balanced and free of gluten, making it the perfect alternative for those who are following alternative diets.
However, the huge increase in demand for the South American grain has led to problems as farmers simply cannot keep up. The price of the grain has therefore skyrocketed, which pushed scientists to look into the genome and see what could be done.
The aim is to create varieties which are more productive. At present, quinoa is somewhat difficult to grow. It likes high altitudes combined with cool temperatures, a fact which has seen it relegated to growing in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. There are small amounts being grown around the world, but these three countries are the main suppliers.
Prices have tripled between 2006 and 2013, and the last few years have seen further growth. The good news is that the increase in demand benefitted the people of the areas where it is grown, which have been traditionally poorer.
But so far, breeding programs have failed. The plant naturally produces bitter and toxic saponins to protect against predators, which must be removed for human consumption. The plants also fall over easily and are generally weak, which is bad news for farmers looking to make a bigger crop.
Now, however, scientists at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, have been able to sequence the genome. They have also been able to produce the highest quality quinoa gene sequence that has yet been achieved, either by scientific or natural means.
“By sequencing the genome we have provided the foundation to enable breeders to work much faster and more powerfully,” said project leader Professor Mark Tester. “Especially the seeds, they will be able to develop a lot more varieties for different conditions, they will help us make a designer plant.”
Not only have they already made some progress, but they have in fact managed to deal with one of the main issues with food manufacturing of quinoa.
“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. We are putting the breeding into turbo charge, we are putting the breeding on steroids.”
Other scientists have spoken up about the new discovery.
“The quinoa DNA sequence information is extremely valuable for identifying key genes controlling important agronomic traits and for identifying genetic variability among the cultivars,” said Dr Sven-Erik Jacobsen from the University of Copenhagen. “Now breeders can go into quinoa genomic library for the information that will help speed up the breeding process.”
Tester is confident that their research can help push down the price of quinoa. He says, “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.”
This could be the start of a revolution in quinoa’s production – which can only mean good things for health-conscious foodies.