DNA barcoding to promote social awareness and identity of neglected, underutilized plant species having valuable nutritional properties

Food Res Int. 2019 Jan:115:1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.foodres.2018.07.031. Epub 2018 Jul 27.


It is estimated that about 7000 plant species and a large number of cultivars and varieties have been cultivated for consumption in human history. However, <0.5% of these currently provide the majority of human food energy needs worldwide (e.g., rice, wheat, maize, and potato). Global issues such as climate change, diffusion of pests, and resistance to agrochemical treatments are posing great concern about the sustainable cultivation of these major staples, especially in equatorial and tropical countries, such as Sub Saharan Africa. In addition, most of these regions contain malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, and the sum of such problems create serious implications at social, political, and economic levels. A possible solution relies on the exploitation of plant biodiversity and particularly on the so-called NUS (Neglected and Underutilized Species). These plants are traditionally grown in their centres of origin and continue to be maintained by sociocultural preferences, however they remain inadequately documented and neglected by formal research and conservation programs. Although they are important in terms of micronutrients and the ability to grow in harsh conditions, these species are falling into disuse due to agronomic, genetic, economic, and cultural reasons. To promote and spread their cultivation at the global scale, along with knowledge on their suitability for human nutrition, reliable identification systems are necessary to guarantee adequate authenticity along the entire supply chain and distribution network. A precise identification of the different species and their varieties is fundamental both to retrieve information on their origin and authenticate the raw materials (i.e., seeds, leaves and fruit) and related processed products that can be distributed at the local or global scale. DNA-based techniques can help achieve this mission. In particular, the DNA barcoding approach has gained a role of primary importance due to its universality and versatility. Here, we discuss the advantages in using DNA barcoding for the identification of some of the most representative NUS species, as well as their traceability and conservation of cultural practices around them.

Keywords: DNA barcoding; Food Security; Micronutrient deficiency; NUS; Sub Saharan Africa.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biodiversity
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • DNA Barcoding, Taxonomic*
  • Food Supply
  • Fruit / chemistry
  • Micronutrients / analysis
  • Nutritional Status
  • Nutritive Value*
  • Plant Leaves / chemistry
  • Plants / chemistry*
  • Seeds / chemistry


  • Micronutrients