Quinoa Plants Have Surprising Natural Defense

Leaf structures thought to provide salt and drought protection actually defend against herbivores

by Science Writer Kim Woolcock

As the planet warms, highly resilient crops such as quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) are attracting more and more attention, as are the traits that allow them to grow in harsh conditions. An ancient crop native to the Andean region of South America, quinoa is highly salt and drought tolerant. Its leaves are covered in tiny, fluid-filled balloons called epidermal bladder cells (EBCs) that were thought to be the source of its stress tolerance. A study published in Current Biology on October 17, 2023 reveals that EBCs actually do not protect against salt or drought, instead providing physical and chemical protection against insects and bacteria. The EBCs act as a shield, blocking access to the leaf surface, and are filled with compounds, including oxalic acid, that are toxic to herbivorous insects. Understanding the function of EBCs will help in breeding quinoa varieties adapted to specific conditions. The open-access Current Biology article is titled “Epidermal Bladder Cells As a Herbivore Defense Mechanism.”
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