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BYU researchers work to develop drought-resistant quinoa

By Ashtyn Asay - | Jan 15, 2022


Rick Jellen and Lauren Young examine quinoa plants.

As climate change threatens food availability worldwide, researchers at Brigham Young University are breeding quinoa to withstand desert-like environments, and working to develop hybrid varieties of the seed.

Quinoa is a plant native to the South Andean region of South America, and is known for its edible seeds which are rich in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals — benefits that make it a desirable crop for those experiencing food scarcity.

Rick Jellen, a professor of plant and wildlife sciences at BYU, has been studying quinoa since 2000, shortly after he began working at the university. He helped to first sequence the primary quinoa genome five years ago, and has since sequenced the genome for European and Asian quinoa varieties.

Now, Jellen and his fellow researchers are using a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expound on that previous work, and breed quinoa to be able to thrive in new environments.

“We had the idea that we could improve the range of environments in which you could produce quinoa by crossing quinoa, hybridizing it, with strains of its wild sister species that grows all over in North America, and southern South America.”


Lauren Young examines a quinoa plant.

David Jarvis, an assistant professor of plant and wildlife sciences at BYU, saw the research on quinoa as an undergraduate at the university, and is now continuing the work as a principal researcher alongside Jellen and Jeff Maughan.

“Our work has been focused on trying to be able to grow quinoa in new places where it’s not normally grown,” Jarvis said. “Quinoa that you buy at the store is grown at like 12,000 feet elevation in the Andes. And so when you try to grow it at a lower elevation where it’s hotter, or where there are more insects or less water, it just doesn’t do very well.”

In order to breed the quinoa to adapt to new, harsher environments, the researchers use wild and weedy relatives of quinoa, that are genetically similar and have already adapted to grow in these areas.

“What we’re trying to do is create hybrids by crossing these weedy relatives with quinoa in an effort to breed in the desired traits from the weedy relative while keeping the desirable traits of quinoa,” Jarvis said. “For example, can we bring in heat tolerance or drought tolerance from these weeds while also maintaining the large seed size that we get in domesticated quinoa?”

The researchers introduced quinoa to Morrocco almost 20 years ago, and according to Jarvis, that introduction was highly successful.

“It’s a great success story,” Jarvis said. “it’s growing a lot right now and it’s definitely benefitting communities that historically never grew quinoa but now they have a nutritious crop that they can grow in place of other crops that are either not as nutritious or don’t grow as well in those hotter drier locations.”


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