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Quinoa's Hidden Defense: Unraveling the Mystery of Bladder Cells

Michael Palmgren and Max Moog from the University of Copenhagen. Photo: University of Copenhagen.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have punctured a century-old theory about the role of unique bladder cells in quinoa plants. Contrary to longstanding belief, these cells, resembling water balloons or glass art, are not involved in drought and salt tolerance but serve as a formidable defense against pests and diseases.

For 127 years, scientists thought these epidermal bladder cells stored water and salt, contributing to quinoa's resilience in harsh environments. However, a study led by PhD student Max Moog and Professor Michael Palmgren from the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences has shifted this narrative.

Their research involved cultivating mutant quinoa plants lacking bladder cells and comparing their responses to salt and drought with wild-type plants. Surprisingly, the absence of bladder cells did not affect the mutants' salt and drought tolerance. Instead, these plants were more susceptible to infestation by small insects, unlike their bladder-cell-covered counterparts. This observation led to the realization that bladder cells must play a different role.

Further analysis revealed that bladder cells act as both physical and chemical barriers to pests. These cells contain compounds like oxalic acid, toxic to invaders, and partially cover leaf stomata, blocking bacterial entry points. This finding indicates bladder cells' role in protecting quinoa against common bacterial diseases like Pseudomonas syringae and potentially other plant diseases such as downy mildew.

The discovery of bladder cells' true function opens new avenues for breeding even more resilient quinoa varieties. Quinoa, a highly nutritious and climate-resilient crop, could now be adapted to various regional conditions, considering the pest and drought challenges specific to each area. For instance, in northern Europe, where pests pose a greater problem than drought, quinoa varieties with dense bladder cells could be favored.

This newfound understanding of bladder cells in quinoa marks a significant breakthrough in plant biology. It not only reveals the plant's multifaceted defense mechanisms against biological and non-biological stressors but also provides insights into breeding strategies for "super-quinoa" varieties. These varieties could offer enhanced resistance to pests and diseases while maintaining their inherent tolerance to salt and drought.

Concluding Insights:

The University of Copenhagen's research fundamentally changes our understanding of quinoa's resilience and offers practical applications for agriculture. By uncovering the true purpose of bladder cells, this research not only challenges long-held scientific beliefs but also highlights the potential for innovative agricultural practices in breeding more robust crop varieties.

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