Climate change

What is the quinoa seed and germplasm collection like?

You may never have heard of quinoa before 2013. That’s when the United Nations ran a campaign to promote awareness of this cereal crop. Now, many people enjoy a bowl of cooked quinoa itself – or as an ingredient in pastas, bread, and other items.

Quinoa grains look like small seeds. However, in botanical terms, it is a pseudo cereal. True cereal grains, like wheat, barley, and rye, are grass-like. But not quinoa. It is more closely related to crops like spinach, beet, and chard, with large, edible leaves. In addition, the seeds can be eaten, and the top of the plant can be harvested before flowering and eaten like broccoli.

Still, because quinoa is planted, grown, harvested, and consumed like a cereal crop, it’s called a pseudo cereal.

Quinoa comes from the Andean region of South America. It has a long history of cultivation and consumption in South American culture.

Several leaves with a flower head in the middle with multiple seeds starting to form
A quinoa plant from the Quinoa World Core Collection before flowering in a Washington State University greenhouse. The “pyramid” shape is characteristic of this growth stage, and this structure will continue to elongate and expand as the flowers open, creating quinoa seeds. Quinoa relies on the amount of sunshine per day to know when to flower. The leaves are also edible, like spinach or chard. Credit: Evan Craine

Quinoa has been domesticated, diversified and cared for by Andean farmers for over 7,000 years. These farmers have succeeded in producing quinoa in extremely challenging environments. They grow it in salt flats surrounding Lake Titicaca as well as high elevation, mountainous areas of the Andes. Quinoa has the potential to grow in places that most other crops simply cannot tolerate.

Because of these efforts, and the commitment of Andean farmers to making quinoa the exceptional crop that it is, there is a wide range in quinoa’s ability to grow in different environments. This adaptability contributes to the potential of quinoa to respond to climate change.

By adapting to all these different conditions in unique ways, quinoa can have striking diversity in plant color, height, plant shape and survival mechanisms. The nutritious and delicious seeds come in many colors, shapes, and sizes and are used in numerous traditional and modern dishes, beverages, and products.

tall quinoa plant with ripe seeds growing
A quinoa plant from the Quinoa World Core Collection at maturity in a Washington State University greenhouse. Ripe seeds can be seen on the plant in the foreground. The seeds have all nine amino acids, making them a great source of protein. Credit: Evan Craine 

Not all of this diversity is available to farmers and scientists outside of South America. The reason for this is that quinoa has a significant cultural, economic, and even religious role in the South American countries that produce it. It is treasured and safeguarded closely by the communities that rely on it as part of their identity and for their existence.

Nevertheless, there are publicly available types of quinoa that have made their way out of South America. The Quinoa World Core Collection is a collection of seeds and their genetic information representing a fraction of the total quinoa diversity.

This collection is a fantastic resource for plant breeders and scientists and is available to support the global expansion of quinoa. Scientists are growing this collection around the world. They hope that quinoa can benefit humanity by growing resiliently in extreme environmental conditions, while providing an excellent source of nutrition to help feed the world.

six Styrofoam bowls filled and labeled with quinoa seeds
Quinoa seeds from the World Core Collection after harvest and seed cleaning. This collection is a fantastic resource for plant breeders and scientists and is available to support the global expansion of quinoa. Credit: Evan Craine 

These scientists are taking note of many different characteristics of the Quinoa World Core Collection. They research the crops to understand how the plants respond to new environments.

One type of research is looking at how long it takes a plant to flower and produce mature seed. Quinoa relies on the amount of sunshine available each day, as a cue for growing, flowering, and producing seed to be harvested. Some types are more sensitive to day length than others. The time required to produce harvestable seed will change depending on the environment they are grown in. This is critical information to provide to farmers that want to grow quinoa in new places.

Scientists have collected and improved upon the DNA, or genetic data, for the Quinoa World Core Collection. They combine genetic information with the characteristics of each type of quinoa in the collection as well as different growing locations. Studying this information helps researchers determine which parts of the DNA contribute to similarities and differences. In turn, this knowledge helps improve breeding to strategically improve and adapt quinoa to new areas.

up close view of quinoa plant
A close up of a striking relative of quinoa, huazontle. Washington State University Quinoa Breeding Program is using it as a parent in new populations of crosses to quinoa. This between-specie cross could reveal interesting combinations of characteristics from each parent’s species. Credit: Evan Craine

Scientists are also looking to quinoa with keen attention on protein quantity, and more importantly, protein quality. Quinoa has all nine of the amino acids that humans must obtain through their diet. This makes it a complete protein.

However, not all quinoa has the same amounts of these essential amino acids. The type of quinoa, the soil and nutrients and environment it is grown in, and how the quinoa is grown and processed can all influence quinoa protein quantity and quality. Scientists are working to determine how to maintain and improve quinoa nutrition.

If we want to feed the world in an increasingly challenging climate, we need to embrace crops like quinoa. We need to study and understand their potential and work to realize it. Quinoa has a long and intimate relationship with South American communities. Researchers are working to learn more about how our actions and efforts impact these communities. Without their stewardship of quinoa, we would not have the chance to know and learn from this incredible plant.

Answered by Evan Craine, with comments from Kevin Murphy and Gordon Wellman

This blog is part of Crop Science Society of America’s Seed Week celebration. Why celebrate seeds? Anyone who plants a seed is investing in hope. That’s one of the attractions of seeds. For the gardener, it could be hope for a beautiful flower, or perhaps a delicious zucchini squash. For our farmers, seeds are the hope of this year’s yields of produce, cash crops or forage. No matter the size or shape of the seed, they all can bring forth new life. At Crop Science Society of America, we hold seeds in very high regard. Please visit our Seed Week webpage for news stories, blogs and more information about seed research and facts.

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

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