Although quinoa is widely regarded by foodies as an up-and-coming superfood, this nutrition-packed grain is currently grown only in South America’s Andes Mountains. As Canadian tastes and markets for this mild-flavoured product expand, agricultural researchers are considering whether the plant can be adapted for cultivation here.

A traditional approach might have included studying generations of quinoa, looking for some variation that would allow it to survive our weather extremes. Suresh Neethirajan had a better idea. The University of Guelph engineer took some quinoa out to the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon for a good look at its chromosomes under synchrotron radiation.

Neethirajan employed Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscopy (STXM), a technique that yields spectroscopic details of a target at the nanometre scale. The result was an accurate map of quinoa’s genetic structure, and a short cut to determine how it should behave in a Canadian farmer’s field. “We know the relationship between the chromosomal characteristics and their functional traits,” says Neethirajan, adding that these features must be observed exactly as they appear in the natural setting. This is challenging, however, as quinoa has extraordinarily small chromosomes: less than 3,100 nanometres long and 200 nanometres thick.

Standard imaging techniques would call for chemical pre-treatments that would alter this arrangement and misrepresent the structure. But STXM captures this information with no such disturbance. “The beauty here is that we were able to chemically understand the characteristics inside these chromosomes,” Neethirajan says.

The data are being added to extensive databases documenting the biomarkers associated with how quinoa responds to cold, diseases, insects, or other environmental factors. Having worked on similar databases for other key crops such a buckwheat and agave, Neethirajan suggests that we are well on the way to assembling a practical library of chromosomal information that could eventually be consulted in the field using hand-held scanning technology. A crop’s vulnerability to current conditions could be identified before significant losses occur and farmers could take steps to address the problem well in advance. “There’s a huge demand for novel tools,” Neethirajan says. “The potential for developing precise molecular cytogenetic mapping using nanoscale technology is huge. It’s possible to solve key challenges in plant breeding as well as in the biomedical field.”