An article published in the journal “Nature” describes the DNA sequencing of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) (photo ©Kurt Stueber www.biolib.de). A team of researchers led by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia made a genetic mapping of this plant highly regarded for its high nutritional content. The knowledge obtained is already used by farmers to improve its varieties and could allow to expand its cultivation.
Quinoa is a pseudo-cereal whose seeds can be ground to produce flour or cooked like rice. For these reasons, it’s considered from a commercial point of view a cereal but it’s actually related to spinach and beetroot, other plants that are part of the Chenopodiaceae family together with quinoa. It’s a plant known since the times of the Inca civilization, which used it as a staple food for its excellent protein content and being rich in minerals and vitamins.
The various possible uses of quinoa helped to declare 2013 the International Year of quinoa by the UN General Assembly, making it a particularly famous plant. It contains no gluten so it can be eaten by celiacs as well but it’s not a miraculous plant and has some problems in its cultivation and preparation as food. Its plants have very long and brittle stems which makes them sensitive to weather and their untreated seeds are bitter and even slightly toxic because of saponins, chemical substances contained in them.
The authors of quinoa’s DNA mapping used a series of genetic sequencing techniques to put together large segments of DNA and eventually obtained the 18 chromosomes that form it for a total of just over 1.3 billion bases. For the operation they used plants selected on the coast of Chile, one of the regions where it originally grew.
Quinoa is considered a super-food and also grows in poor soil but its production is low when compared with that of cereals. Eliminating or at least strongly limiting the saponin content of its plants would represent a major step forward because it would eliminate the need to treat the seeds. This would lead immediately to a cut to the resources needed to treat the seeds and therefore to a significant lowering of their price.
Genetic information on quinoa will also allow better select the most suitable varieties to be grown under the conditions existing in certain regions of the world. Today this plant is already grown in areas where it’s difficult to cultivate cereals, in the future there could be a further expansion. A strong drop in prices could lead to a strong spread of quinoa as a common food in the world.