Israel’s NRGene helps crack genetic makeup of buckwheat

Mapping of plant’s genome will help farmers grow more resilient crops; project was collaboration with Japanese researchers

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

A man takes a photo in a buckwheat flower field in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)
A man takes a photo in a buckwheat flower field in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

Israeli startup NRGene, a company that uses algorithms to map out the genetic makeups of plants, humans and animals, has helped researchers from Japan crack the genome of buckwheat, a gluten-free plant that is high in protein.

The project was carried out with Dr. Yasuo Yasui, a renowned buckwheat scientist, in cooperation with GeneBay, NRGene’s partner in Japan. The work aims to help farmers improve the quality of their crops.

The results were announced earlier this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution in Japan.

Buckwheat is neither a grain nor a grass. Rather, it is related to rhubarb and is considered a pseudo-cereal. The “grains” can be eaten as groats (also known as kasha) or farina breakfast porridge. When ground, the flour can be used in noodles or a variety of other foods. Because it is gluten-free and relatively high in protein, its popularity with consumers has been on the rise recently.

Kasha salad with beets, stone fruit, walnuts and mint in Concord, N.H. Kasha, the toasted form of buckwheat, cooks up in about 10 minutes. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

The plant can also be used as a basis for tea and alcoholic beverages, including gluten-free beer and shochu, a Japanese spirit. Buckwheat is also used as a filling for bed and meditation pillows.

World production of buckwheat in 2016 was 2.4 million tons, led by Russia and China, with 50% and 17% respectively, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSTAT).

“Buckwheat has a very high protein content, which makes it an important crop in the quest to maximize nutrition for the world’s ever-increasing population,” said Dr. Gil Ronen, CEO of NRGene. “Cooperating with partners worldwide on this type of project gets us that much closer to that goal.”

Founded by Ronen and Guy Kol in 2010, NRGene is a genomic company that enlisted code crackers from the Israeli Defense Forces’ elite 8200 unit to write algorithms and software to break down the genetic makeup of humans, plants, and animals, with the aim of mapping complex genomes quickly and accurately to help breeding and research programs.

In April the startup helped unveil the genetic makeup of soybeans.

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