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BYU professors, students work to fight world hunger with unique grain

By Liesl Nielsen | Posted - Feb. 8, 2017 at 2:14 p.m.



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PROVO — A group of BYU students and professors published a study Wednesday that successfully sequenced the genome of quinoa, a grain that experts believe will help feed the world’s growing population.

BYU Plant and Wildlife Sciences professors Rick Jellen and Jeff Maughan worked with BYU students Aaron Sharp and Ryan Rupper on the study that was published Wednesday in Nature, one of the world's top scientific journals. The study was led by researchers at KAUST, a university in Saudi Arabia.

As the world’s population grows, experts hope that quinoa, which grows well in areas that other crops do not, will provide the nutrition that many people in these regions need. The sequencing of the genome allows scientists to modify the plant for more widespread use and production in low-altitude environments.

“In a world where populations are growing fast and climate change is altering the environment, plant scientists worry a lot about crop failure,” Maughan said in a news release Wednesday. “That’s why quinoa is so vital. It not only has a full complement of essential amino acids (high protein), but it can be grown in marginal environments — salty soils, dry soils, high altitudes — where other staple crops cannot.”

Currently, quinoa only has a few commercial growing areas, including Peru and Bolivia, but researchers hope the genetic information will help quinoa production expand to regions that need it. Certain hurdles have been holding it back, but the information published in the study will allow scientists to use selective breeding to improve the way the plant grows.

“The newly sequenced quinoa genome is already helping researchers overcome… (a) hurdle holding back the plant: chemical compounds called saponins that cause bitter-tasting seeds. Current production requires thorough rinsing of the saponin coating after harvesting,” BYU said in a news release.

Rupper spent “the better part of a year” working to find a genetic marker that controls the production of this chemical in quinoa and eventually was able to find two possible genes that affect saponin, which will hopefully allow breeders to create sweeter-tasting quinoa.

The professors and students also hope that the study will provide opportunities to those living on the most unforgiving terrain.

“If you can grow sufficient quinoa on the worst of land, you can provide a family or a community with the protein they may not be getting due to lack of meat,” Jellen said.


Liesl is a web reporter at KSL.com, section editor of KSL's Tech and Science section and a student at Brigham Young University. You can email her at lnielsen@deseretdigital.com and follow her on Twitter at @liesl_nielsen.

Liesl Nielsen

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