Quinoa, already one of America's favorite superfoods, could be performing even more heroics.
The cover story of February's issue of Nature is a report on sequencing quinoa's genome. The project is the first step towards an even more sustainable, better tasting, and nutritionally superior plant.
To be clear, this is not the first analysis of the quinoa genome. A Kyoto University team published an initial sequencing in August of 2016, but it was a look at just a single, highly modified strain. For this paper, researchers on four different continents sequenced the genome of Chenopodium quinoa, plus the genomes of two similar ancient grains, one of Eurasian ancestry and one of South American decent.
Researchers also did "shallow" sequences on a handful of wild quinoa strains. "Theirs was more of a rough draft, it was comparatively low resolution," explains Rick Jellen, a professor of plant genetics at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who assisted with the research. By looking at the DNA makeup of several similar plants, this paper brings quinoa sharply into focus, and picks out real ways to improve it.
There's a lot to love about the South American "pseudo-grain." A complete protein, since it contains all nine essential amino acids, quinoa also supplies a host of minerals like magnesium and calcium. Even against-the-grain diets like Paleo and South Beach allow practitioners to consume the plant in moderation.
However, for the authors of this paper, quinoa's biggest selling point isn't that Whole Foods shoppers in yoga pants are obsessed with it—it's that it grows well in places where other things won't. The UN declared 2013 the "International Quinoa Year" in celebration of the plant's promise for the developing world. "It is a tough plant and is very closely related to several extremely tough and weedy plants," Mark A. Tester, a professor of bioscience at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, wrote in an email. "So I think it is going to be a great plant for marginal lands, such as in the Sahel and in West Asia," he added.
As hardy as the plant is now, though, Tester and Jellen both say it could be even better. "Commercial quinoa is already drought and salt tolerant, but it's not heat tolerant," Jellen says. One hope from this work is that they'll someday be able to breed a high-yield variety that can withstand 90-degree or hotter temps—like what you might find in the Sahel.
Tester, meanwhile, thinks that they may even be able to breed quinoa that thrives in brackish water. "For every drop of freshwater on land, there is a drop of brackish water that currently cannot be used. If only we could unlock this salty water, we could make a major contribution to future food security. Quinoa could be a major component of this new system, because it is already salt-tolerant. It just needs to be further domesticated, commodified, industrialized."
Don't fret, there's hope in this project for you, too. Researchers located the gene they think is responsible for quinoa's saponin production. Saponins are chemical compounds that act as anti-nutrients, blocking our body's ability to absorb all the plant's protein, Jellen says. Saponins are also responsible for quinoa's slightly bitter taste. Jellen believes that, with a little clever breeding, scientists may be able to produce a plant that tastes better and provides even more nutritional punch.
Right now, neither Tester nor Jellen has any interest in using their data to genetically modify quinoa. Jellen has worked hard to forge relationships with quinoa breeders in South America, where, as a young man, he served as a missionary. Like in the US, he says there's a general level of distrust of GMO crops in places like Peru and Bolivia. To keep his relationships intact, he plans to use traditional breeding methods only.
However, genetic modification isn't totally off the table, either. Researchers say their data will remain open to public access. There's no reason someone unrelated to this research couldn't use this work to splice and dice the plant's DNA. Both also insist that genetic modification is a powerful tool that "isn't going away because of its tremendous power to target unfavorable genes," Jellen says.
But traditional plant breeding benefits hugely from this research too. Having a complete genetic printout of a plant can expedite the selective breeding process, making it almost as powerful of a tool as genetic modification, Tester says. Crossing new and old strains in a Mendelian experiment used to take 15 years or more to pay off. With DNA in hand, Jellen says, new market-ready strands could emerge in eight years.
Until then, you'll have to enjoy your quinoa scramble with the varieties we already have on hand. But know that thanks to science, a better bowl could be on its way.