The genes of an overlooked crop

Genetic analyses of 310 varieties of quinoa help to localize sequences important for agronomy.

Quinoa plants. Image credit: Nazgol Emrani (CC BY 4.0)

As human populations grow and climate change tightens its grip, developing nutritious crops which can thrive on poor soil and under difficult conditions will become a priority. Quinoa, a harvest currently overlooked by agricultural research, could be an interesting candidate in this effort.

With its high nutritional value and its ability to tolerate drought, frost and high concentrations of salt in the soil, this hardy crop has been cultivated in the Andes for the last 5,000 to 7,000 years. Today its commercial production is mainly limited to Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Pinpointing the genetic regions that control traits such as yields or flowering time would help agronomists to create new varieties better suited to life under northern latitudes and mechanical farming.

To identify these genes, Patiranage et al. grew 310 varieties of quinoa from all over the world under the same conditions; the genomes of these plants were also examined in great detail. Analyses were then performed to link specific genetic variations with traits relevant to agriculture, helping to pinpoint changes in the genetic code linked to differences in how the plants grew, resisted disease, or produced seeds of varying quality. Candidate genes likely to control these traits were then put forward.

The study by Patiranage et al. provides a genetic map where genes of agronomical importance have been precisely located and their effects measured. This resource will help to select genetic profiles which could be used to create new quinoa breeds better adapted to a changing world.