18 Feb 2017

Quinoa genetics & evidence e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking

From This Way Up, 12:50 pm on 18 February 2017

A new study looking at the risks and the benefits of e-cigarettes finds that vapers are more likely to go on to smoke real cigarettes. So are e-cigarettes really a gateway to smoking?

Also scientists have decoded the genome of the popular grain quinoa to understand how it can grow in super harsh conditions.

Quinoa plants near Cachora, Apurímac, Peru (

Quinoa plants near Cachora, Apurímac, Peru ( Photo: Von Maurice Chédel, Gemeinfrei)

The quinoa plant's ability to tolerate salty soils, drought and extreme temperatures yet still produce nutritious food could be a major advantage in a world coping with rising populations and the impact of climate change.

Dr Chris Smith of The Naked Scientists tells Simon Morton one challenge is that some of the more productive quinoa varieties deter predators by coating their seeds with mildly toxic bitter-tasting soapy compounds called saponins. 

"These can be washed off, but, in a water-poor environment, this would defeat the object of growing the plant in the first place," Dr Smith says.

"Also, some of the plants with the greatest environmental resilience characteristics are not the highest yielding". 

Writing in the journal Nature, KAUST plant scientist Mark Tester and his team have painstakingly unpicked the genetic code of quinoa and a number of its close relatives.

By comparing plants that add greater or lesser amounts of the saponins to their seeds, they've been able to identify the genetic region responsible, making it much easier to breed the trait out. 

"Rather than having to wait three months for the plant to grow and then test the seeds, we can test a small amount of leaf tissue in a plant just a few days old [to see if it has the saponin genes]," said study co-author Sandra Schmoekel. 

By selecting for desirable traits when breeding the plants there is also the prospect that the genes responsible for say salt and temperature tolerance could be moved into other key crop plants like rice, soy or cereals.

Developing black seed in quinoa flower (By Adam Peterson  Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Developing black seed in quinoa flower (By Adam Peterson Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0) Photo: (By Adam Peterson Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)