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Major breakthrough by BYU 'orphaned crops lab' published in 'Nature'

PROVO — Beating ridiculous odds is necessary both for comeback Super Bowl victories and publishing breakthrough papers in the world's top science journal, Nature.

"It's time to retire," joked Jeff Maughan this week after "Nature" published the work the professor did with BYU colleague Rick Jellen. "It's probably all downhill from here. It's the apex, the highest accolade to get into 'Nature.'"

Of course, the journal was interested because the possible real-world application of Maughan's and Jellen's research could make quinoa taste better and cost less while growing in all kinds of conditions around the world.

In the school's "orphaned crops lab," the Plant and Wildlife Science's professors study the world's neglected edible plants, working to diversify the world's food supply. Wheat, rice and corn account for half of the calories and protein consumed around the world. In fact, 30 plants provide 95 percent of the world's food needs.

There are more than 12,000 other edible plants.

"It's like a 401k," Maughan said. "Would you put all of your money into three stocks? That's crazy. Especially when you know the stock market is volatile, like we know the world's environment is volatile with global warming."

They landed in the middle of a major project on quinoa, an important alternative grain, because a student they had mentored was doing post-doctoral work in Saudi Arabia. Researchers there wanted to study plants that can grow in salty soils.

That BYU graduate, David Jarvis, advised his colleagues at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to call BYU's orphaned crops lab.

A broad collaboration of scientists moved the ball forward, sequencing the genome of quinoa. Jellen and Maughan sequenced two species from the grain's ancestral gene pool, enabling the identification of the two sub-genomes of quinoa. Nature published the genome on Thursday.

"This was very difficult and required a good-sized team," Maughan said. "Now comes the hardest step. Now that we have the instructional manual, do we know how to read it?"

Quinoa is hardy. It grows on a Bolivian mountain at an elevation of 12,000 feet, but so far is mostly grown only in Bolivia and Peru and is expensive. The price tripled between 2006 and 2013 as it became popular in the United States. The genome will allow researchers to look for varieties that will grow globally and inexpensively.

"If you can grow sufficient quinoa on the worst of land," Jellen said in a campus news release, "you can provide a family or a community with the protein they may not be getting due to lack of meat."

If "Nature" is an apex for professors, imagine what it would mean to students to be published in such a well-respected journal.

"I was shocked when they told me about it," said Ryan Rupper, 24, a senior from Orem, Utah, who worked on the project and is listed as a co-author on the paper with Maughan, Jellen and Aaron Sharp, a graduate student.

Mentored undergraduate research is one of BYU's calling cards, and Rupper is the latest high-profile example.

Rupper recalled walking from his apartment south of campus to the lab in last summer's heat in long pants, which are required in the orphaned plants lab. It was awful, and it was boring to run the same experiments over and over for months on end.

It was worth it, though, when he looked into his computer monitor in the lab on the fifth floor of the Life Science Building on 800 North one afternoon and saw the marker on quinoa's DNA that the team had been looking for.

Quinoa produces bitter, soapy compounds called saponins that must be rinsed off after harvest. Rupper found the marker responsible for saponins.

"It was exhilarating," he said.

"We already have a salt- and drought-resistant strain of quinoa," he said. "If we can breed that together with a sweet strain of quinoa, one that doesn't have saponin on the grain, we can make it more accessible and reduce the cost."

Rupper's contribution is one of the highlights of the "Nature" article.

Rupper is a double major in genetics and biotechnology and bioinformatics. He is scheduled to graduate in April.

Sharp, 26, of Bountiful, Utah, earned a master's degree in genetics and biotechnology in April 2016. Sharp used a Bionano Genomics Iris platform to take microscopic photos of long, individual DNA molecules. The process is called optical mapping and contributed to the effort to bring together the sequence data.

"I'm glad I had a few skills that allowed me to help out on a large scale project that had a lot of talented people on it," said Sharp, now a software developer for an insurance company.

Jarvis, the BYU graduate working in Saudi Arabia, was the lead author on the paper.

BYU researchers now have published six articles in Nature in the past 15 years. Josh Udall and students helped unlock the genome sequence for cotton in January 2013. John Kauwe and a student were part of a team that identified Alzheimer's gene mutations in December 2013. Steven Johnson contributed to a team that studied improved gene therapies in 2011. Noel Owen and Dennis Tolley helped reveal Stradiviri's secrets in 2006. And in 2003, Michael Whiting demonstrated that "walking sticks" insects regained the ability to fly after 50 million years.