The world’s smallest grain, Tef from Ethiopia

Orphan Crops: With increasing urbanization and climate change it is predicted that by 2050 there will be a global crisis in agricultural systems and crop productivity. Whilst over previous decades, improvement strategies have focused on established crops alone, there is an opportunity to consider the value of new crops that are grown in different parts of the world. This would exploit understudied crops with potential climate resilience and nutrition; so-called “orphan crops”. Orphan or neglected crops are endemic to certain regions of the world and tend to be more resilient to environment stress and may be significant sources of nutrition. Orphan crops play a significant role in food security and generate profit to resource-poor farmers, especially in the developing world. Accelerating studies into these crops could lead to the development of agriculturally important crops that could be resilient to climate change and/or have health promoting properties.

Gluten free cereals: About 60% of the calories consumed by humans comes from major cereals like rice, wheat, and maize but these crops are not suitable for individuals who suffer from diabetes or celiac disease (gluten intolerance). So, there is a growing demand for gluten free yet nutritionally rich cereals in the food industry. Currently orphan cereals from the family of millets (small grains) like[Finger millet (Panji pullu, ragi), Kodo Millet (Koovaragu), Foxtail Millet (Thinai), Little Millet (Chama), Pearl millet (Jowar) Barnyard Millet (Kavadapullualth)] and Tef are emerging as novel food sources.

Golden crop of Ethiopia: Tef [Eragrostis Tef (Zucc.) Trotter] is a tiny-seeded grain from Ethiopia and is a major staple crop of East Africa where it is cultivated on ~ 3 million hectares of land. The name ‘Tef’ came from the Amharic word ‘Teffa’ which means for ‘lost’ so named for its tiny seed size (1-1.5 mm) which may be lost during harvesting. However, Tef grains possess superior nutritionally quality than any other grains including millets and brown rice being rich in dietary fibres, protein (11%) and minerals (iron, calcium and zinc). It is rich in essential amino acids, especially lysine, which are at much lower levels in wheat. Furthermore, due to its low glycemic index (which describes how quickly food impact on blood glucose levels) and gluten free nature it is used as an alternative for people with Celiac’s disease and Type 2 diabetes. Compared to other cereal crops, Tef has an excellent adaptability to extreme environmental conditions (especially drought and water logging). In light of these opportunities, tef cultivation has expanded from Ethiopia and Eritrea to Australia, Canada, USA and South Africa.

Tef, an addition to gluten free and vegan diet: Closely resembling millets, Tef grains are naturally gluten free and and comes in different colours, ranging from dark red, red, brown to yellowish white, white, and mixed (red/brown/white). White Tef is the most expensive, with a high export demand, and it can be used to mix with other grains for making bread and other healthy foods. Red/brown tef has a high iron content and is mostly preferred for local use. In Ethiopia, Tef grains are ground to flour and is fermented to make a flat bread ‘injera’. It is branded as ‘new superfood’ in western countries (USA, Europe) and is being taken up by the global food industry for developing gluten free foods and beverages.

Tef grains: White, brown and mixed               

Injera from brown Tef

Tef research: Despite, its potential there have been limited efforts to characterize and analyse Tef diversity so it can be fully exploited as a crop. The release of Tef genome sequences in 2014 and 2020 represents an opportunity to accelerate the development of new elite varieties. Equally, the development in recent decades of “big-data” (‘omics) approaches where very large numbers of genes, proteins and biochemicals are assessed, can allow to link key features that are related to nutritional and agronomic traits. Ethiopia holds the largest Tef collection (more than 5000 varieties), and there is limited availability of high yielding and stress tolerant varieties for Tef breeding. Like humans each Tef variety is different from one another and due to this complexity, it is important to gain an in-depth characterization of Tef varieties to identify the elite lines.

The diversity within Tef needs to be tapped to meet specific needs and markets which will lead to the development of new elite varieties. For example, Tef seeds show variation in size and colour. Tef consumers prefer to buy grains rather than flour based on size and colour. Ethiopian farmers (for planting) and consumers prefer to buy large grains. A team of researchers from Aberystwyth University (Wales, United Kingdom) has initiated the application of high-throughput omics (genomics, metabolomics) in tef for its improvement and breeding. The team is undertaken an in-depth characterisation of the seeds from 200 different tef varieties to understand the variation in grain features (phenotype) followed by metabolite profiling (estimation of biochemicals in seeds using mass spectrometry). This will allow the identification of tef lines with best nutritional quality and seed size. Apart from this, the team also targets to explore the drought adaptive mechanism within tef varieties which will identify important genes which confer tolerance in tef. Tef has a weak stem, and it falls over on maturity (lodging) which is another major problem that cause yield loss. A gene editing approach using CRISPR is being applied in tef to develop a lodging resistant variety. The group is also contributing to the genome sequencing of tef ancestral species which will provide more insights into the evolution of tef. The Tef programme is funded as part of European Marie Curie fellowship (SUPERTEFF) and is led by Aiswarya Girija under the supervision of Prof. Luis Mur and Prof. Rattan Yadav.

Dr. Aiswarya Girija, Marie-Curie Post-doctoral fellow, Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK

 “Food is not what we see in our local store, it is the impact that it makes in our body and health.”

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