Unveiling the Hidden Potential of Chia: Oregon State University Scientists Decode Its Genome

by Hiroshi Tanaka
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Chia Genome Research

A team of researchers from Oregon State University has successfully sequenced the chia plant’s genome, revealing promising avenues for human health and nutritional improvements. Their study identifies key genes that hold potential for pharmaceutical development and nutritional enhancement, thereby elevating the status of chia as an important subject in agricultural research. This discovery, combined with chia’s nutritional diversity and adaptability, establishes it as a significant contributor to future initiatives in food security and health-focused studies.

The recent success in decoding the chia genome by Oregon State University researchers marks a significant stride in nutritional and health research. It underscores the plant’s prospects in both pharmaceutical development and agricultural innovation.

Unraveling the Chia Genome for Health and Nutrition

The researchers’ recent publication details the discovery of specific chia genes linked to nutritional benefits and properties desirable in pharmaceuticals, potentially useful in treating a range of conditions from cancer to hypertension. Chia seeds have garnered considerable attention for their dense nutritional content in recent times.

Chia Seeds. Credit: Pankaj Jaiswal

Gaining Molecular Insight

While previous attempts have been made to sequence the chia genome, this study provides a more intricate molecular perspective and emphasizes the potential of genetic research focused on human health applications.

Pankaj Jaiswal, a professor in Oregon State’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, highlighted that this research paves the way for future studies on chia seeds with an emphasis on enhancing human health and further understanding their nutritional benefits.

Expanding Chia Cultivation in Oregon and Beyond

The findings also generate optimism for cultivating chia in Oregon, where climatic conditions are akin to South America, its primary growing region. Efforts at the University of Kentucky have also contributed to the promotion of chia cultivation.

Close-Up of Chia Seeds. Credit: Pankaj Jaiswal

Revitalizing Lesser-Known Crops

Chia, often regarded as an orphan or minor crop, has historically been overlooked in scientific research compared to staples like rice, wheat, and maize. These staples were central to the Green Revolution, which significantly reduced global hunger.

“Embracing diversity in our diet through breeding and genetic improvements in nutrient-rich, minor crops like chia is crucial for long-term food and nutrition security,” stated Sushma Naithani, a senior research associate professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology.

The global demand for nutrient-dense orphan crops such as chia, millets, and yams is rising, partly due to their ability to thrive on marginal lands, an important consideration in climate change mitigation.

Chia Plant. Credit: Pankaj Jaiswal

A Nutritional Powerhouse

Chia seeds, small and varying in color from black to white, are rich in fiber, healthy fats, and proteins. They are commonly used in smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, pancakes, and granola bars.

Previous studies have shown that:

  • The polyunsaturated fatty acids in chia seeds enhance cardiovascular health, reduce cholesterol, and possess anti-cancer properties.
  • High fiber content in chia seeds benefits type-2 diabetes patients and those with gastrointestinal diseases.
  • Chia proteins have potential in treating cancer and high blood pressure and exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.
  • Water-soaked chia seeds create a gel used in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals as a texture modifier, emulsifier, and encapsulating agent.

Advancing Agriculture through Genetic Discovery

Furthermore, the study identifies genes and genetic markers in chia that could assist agricultural researchers in enhancing traits beneficial to human health.

Parul Gupta, a research associate in the Jaiswal laboratory and the paper’s first author, mentioned the identification of 29 genes associated with the biosynthesis of polyunsaturated fatty acids and 93 genes contributing to chia seeds’ gel-forming property.

The study also uncovered 2,707 genes predominantly expressed in the seeds, likely producing bioactive peptides with properties that may alleviate conditions like type-2 diabetes and hypertension. This represents the first instance of a plant genome analysis linked directly to human health benefits.

Promoting Open Data and Collaboration

In the spirit of collaborative and open data science, the chia genome data is available at https://salviagdb.org.

The paper, titled “Reference genome of the nutrition-rich orphan crop chia (Salvia hispanica) and its implications for future breeding,” was published on 23 October 2023 in Frontiers in Plant Science. DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2023.1272966

Contributors to the paper, alongside Jaiswal, Naithani, and Gupta, include Justin Elser, Justin Preece, graduate students Matthew Geniza, Noor Al-Bader, Rachel Baschieri, and undergraduates Jeremy Levi Phillips and Ebaad Haq, all from Oregon State University.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Chia Genome Research

What has the Oregon State University research team achieved with the chia plant?

The research team at Oregon State University has successfully sequenced the genome of the chia plant, revealing its potential for enhancing human health and nutrition. This breakthrough identifies genes beneficial for pharmaceutical applications and suggests chia as a valuable crop in agricultural research.

How does the chia genome research contribute to human health and nutrition?

The sequencing of the chia genome opens up prospects for improving human health and nutrition. It identifies genes that could be used in pharmaceuticals for treating various health conditions, and enhances the understanding of chia’s nutritional benefits.

What are the potential benefits of chia seeds discovered in the research?

The study highlights that chia seeds are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are beneficial for cardiovascular health and possess anti-cancer properties. The high fiber content aids in stabilizing blood glucose levels and the protein content in chia seeds shows potential in treating high blood pressure and has antioxidant properties.

How might this research impact agricultural practices?

The research could lead to the breeding of chia plants with amplified health-beneficial traits. It also raises the possibility of expanding chia cultivation in regions like Oregon, due to similar climate conditions to South America, where chia is predominantly grown.

What makes this study of the chia genome unique?

This study provides a more detailed molecular perspective compared to previous attempts at sequencing the chia genome. It focuses on the potential of genetic data mining specifically for human health applications and marks the first plant genome analysis directly linked to human health benefits.

More about Chia Genome Research

  • Oregon State University
  • Nutritional Benefits of Chia Seeds
  • Health Properties of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
  • Agricultural Research on Orphan Crops
  • Frontiers in Plant Science Journal

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