10 Oct 2017
The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers. Floren Scrafton was awarded one of the 2017 David Miller Travel Bursaries. Here she details her travels in Bolivia, studying quinoa.
'The David Miller Award helped fund a 4 week research trip to Bolivia this summer where I aspired to immerse myself in the diverse movements of local quinoa research. I wanted to understand the scientific, socio-economic and political impact quinoa was having in its country of origin. Following the increasing promotion of quinoa as a superfood crop and the imminent release of its genome, I was excited to investigate its potential for becoming a strategic crop for food security.
'I planned a variety of trips centred around the high plains of capital city La Paz and the key cultivation region Oruro, which would expose me to a diversity of research initiatives and horticultural practises. I actively participated through a range of activities: conducting interviews with market sellers, farmers, food engineers and policy makers; trying my hand at research both in the lab and in the field initiating a soil-fertility study and helping to preserve the quinoa germplasm bank; listening to inspiring presentations made at the country’s first extensive scientific and technological quinua conference, and lastly, photographing (and sampling!) all the novel quinoa-based food and drink products I could find.
'Given Bolivia’s 5000 year history of cultivating quinoa (which I learned was actually closer to 7000 years) I was unsurprised to find a range of different coloured seeds conserved in germplasm banks. However, I couldn’t have anticipated the scale of work done: 1700 accessions were found in just one collection at the University ‘UTO’ (Universidad Tecnica de Oruro), a product of 50 years of minimally funded work. This feat represented for me the real potential Bolivia has for making its own unique contribution to food security. The diversity within the quinoa gene pool will increase the chances of identifying the molecular basis for key traits such as drought and pest resistance. Such knowledge could facilitate the transfer of quinoa’s natural hardiness into other crops, levering a greater tolerance to a changing climate and promoting the adaptation for growth on previously underutilised or marginal lands. These concepts demonstrate the direct impact quinoa research can have towards securing nutritious food for a growing population.
'Visits to 3 major Universities in Bolivia made me realise however the severe restrictions of biotechnological equipment, for example the UTO University are still sending samples HPLC chemical analysis to Chile, while genetic sequencing is outsourced from the USA or Korea. Having seen the countless ideas from novel transformations of quinoa (beer, extruded cereals, milk) to organic integrated pest management strategies I felt frustrated for Bolivia being held-back on generating fundamental research. However, the door will soon be wide open for international collaborations as 2018 will see the start of construction of the world’s first International Centre for Quinoa Research. This facility aims to help place Bolivia at the forefront of quinoa-related research worldwide and I’m now very inspired to see its progression.
'On a personal note, the David Miller Award enabled me to gain unique skills and specialist knowledge in an entirely novel agricultural context. Especially important to me was being able to practise my Spanish at the same time as developing my particular interests in crop science and the socio-economic implications of international collaboration. Together these experiences have helped me establish a network of research contacts and potential future collaborators - some of which I have already began to devise projects with. I would like to thank the SCI Horticulture group and sponsors for this unique and thoroughly enjoyable opportunity for overseas research and I hope I have inspired an interest in quinoa! Helping out in a germplasm conservation project led by the Bolivian University UTO: collecting the quinoa seed accessions with limited material for regeneration under controlled conditions.'
Floren Villanueva Scrafton
Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP candidate
Univeristy of Oxford