15 December 2020

Old goosefoot can become Denmark´s new source of protein

Green Transition

Iron Age inhabitants of modern-day Denmark once foraged White Goosefoot, a plant related closely to today’s superstar among superfoods — quinoa. In the thousands of years since, goosefoot has gone from favourable forage to reviled weed. University of Copenhagen researchers are now reviving this widespread plant to potentially be grown as an important source of home-grown protein.

White Goosefoot
Photo: Pablo Cárdenas

White Goosefoot. While the name may not ring any bells, the plant is a relative of the well-known quinoa plant that thrives in Denmark.  Goosefoot, also known as lamb’s quarters, was eaten during the Iron Age. But it has long since parted ways with the Danish diet. Until now.

Researchers at UCPH’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences are set to reintroduce the plant as part of a research project funded by Independent Research Fund Denmark, under the fund’s Green Transition thematic research funding programme. The aim is to turn long forgotten goosefoot into a protein-rich agricultural crop that can be cultivated locally. Beyond its tasty and nutritious proteins, the plant is significantly better for the climate, asserts Pablo Cárdenas, - assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences.

"As part of the green transition, it makes a lot of sense to produce foods where they are consumed, as opposed to transporting them around the globe. White goosefoot is very similar to the quinoa plant and already thrives here in Denmark. It is naturally resistant to diseases and its seeds have a high protein content of between 13 and 16 percent ,” he says.

The researchers are currently traveling around Denmark to collect white goosefoot plants, in search of high-protein specimens to use for breeding. They will breed them using a new NASA-inspired technology called Speed Breeding that allows plants to be bred in specialized chambers where researchers can simulate various growing conditions and thereby accelerate the breeding process.

More protein, less poison

Like quinoa, white goosefoot contains a naturally occurring, yet nasty pest control compound known as saponins. As the researchers forage around Denmark, they will look for specimens that are both high in protein and at the same time, low in sudsy, bitter saponins.

"Once we have collected the plants, we will map which genes are responsible for the production of these toxins. In turn, breeding will allow us to end up with a plant that naturally produces fewer toxins.We also want to learn more about where these toxins are stored in the plant,” explains Professor Søren Bak of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, continuing:

"Once we know which genes determine how these saponins are formed, it will be easier for us to select better plants in which these genes aren’t active at all, or only to a much lesser extent. Then, we’ll know what to look for as we begin breeding."

The researchers add that they are not interested in removing all of the saponins, due to the ability of these compounds to naturally repel harmful insects from the plants. Instead, they will breed a plant with a greatly reduced content of saponins in its seed, where the toxins are only found in those parts of plants not meant for consumption. This will allow the plant to become a new and valuable crop for Danish agriculture.