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After the saffron spice DNA

Researchers at the UPM and the University of Tor Vegata of Roma have proposed a new technique that allows the detection of adulterated saffron spice.

A collaborative research between Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) and the University of de Tor Vegata has studied the DNA of the saffron spice through the analysis of its genetic code. The use of this technique has clarified aspects of the genetic variability of this species which has allowed the design of a system that can discriminate and certify the authenticity of saffron spice to avoid cases of adulteration.

Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) is sterile plant species of bulbous herb with purple colored flowers whose origin is still unknown. The dry stigmas of the Crocus sativus L. are commonly known as saffron, which is a cultivated plant with a gastronomical reputation that dates back from ancient times. In fact, it is only vegetatively propagated by bulbs due to its incapacity of producing fertile pollen and for this reason, seeds.

The plant blooms just once a year and the harvest of stigmas are made by manual selection in a very short amount of time. For this reason, saffron spice is the most expensive spice in the world.

This research has used a DNA barcode technique to define different species and saffron spice crop fields. For this reason, researchers have analyzed samples of various species of Crocus, both Italians and Spanish ones, including species from different origins of cultivated saffron spice. As a result of this study, researchers found some aspects of the phylogeny of this gender, particularly the genetic drift of Crocus sativus.

Numerous morphological studies support the theory that saffron spice was originated from evolution or hybridization of other saffron species, especially C. thomasii, C. hadriaticus and C. cartwrightianus. Other theories show that samples of C. sativus could have evolved due to independent factors, probably due to the geographical influences. Specifically, there are genetic differences between the Spanish and the Italian saffron spice.

It is proved that the DNA barcode method, generally used for interspecific taxonomic identification, can be also applied to intraspecific and population studies. Lastly, this molecular approach was proposed as a scientific tool that can discriminate and certify the authenticity of saffron as mentioned before. The fact that the saffron spice is such an expensive product, this barcode method will be able to identify any adulterated saffron

The collaboration between the UPM and the University of de Tor Verga was possible thanks to interchange agreements of the European Erasmus Programme. Representing the UPM for this project as a researcher was the professor Martínez Labarga.


GISMONDI, A; FANALI, F; MARTINEZ LABARGA, JM; CAIOLA, MG; CANINI, A. “Crocus sativus L. genomics and different DNA barcode applications”. Plant Systematics and Evolution 299 (10): 1859-1863. DOI: 10.1007/s00606-013-0841-7. Dic 2013.

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