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It has become a byword for metropolitan, health-conscious dining, but new research suggests quinoa could be destined for a far more important future.
Scientists believe the “supercrop” could solve the problem of feeding the world’s growing population. The resilient seed, which was once the "mother grain" of the ancient Andean civilisation, thrives in harsh environments and provides a more balanced source of nutrients than cereal.
Experts have now discovered a way of manipulating the quinoa plant changing the way it matures and produces food to make the bitter seeds sweeter.
Researchers from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology sequenced the Chenopodium quinoa genome, creating the world's highest quality quinoa sequence which has already yielded insights into the plant's traits.
Professor of Plant Science Mark Tester, who led the project team, said: "Quinoa was the staple 'Mother Grain' that fuelled the ancient Andean civilisations, but the crop was marginalised when the Spanish arrived in South America and has only recently been revived as a new crop of global interest.
"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."
Prof Tester and his team say there is potential for the genome sequence to modify the quinoa plant for more widespread commercial use.
They say breeders could use their new genetic information to control plant size to favour shorter, stockier plants that are less likely to fall over. The plants can also support bigger seed heads and can be grown closer to together in large fields. The research saw 33 researchers from four continents use a combination of cutting-edge sequencing technologies and genetic mapping to piece together chromosomes.
Prof Tester said: "One problem with quinoa is that the plant naturally produces bitter-tasting seeds. This is due to the accumulation of chemical compounds called saponins in the seeds. 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."
He added: "We already know that the quinoa plant family is incredibly resilient. It can grow in poor soils, salty soils and at high altitudes. It really is a very tough plant. Quinoa could provide a healthy, nutritious food source for the world using land and water that currently cannot be used, and our new genome takes us one step closer to that goal."
The study was published in the journal Nature.