Sesame seeds aren’t just little white specks on top of hamburger buns. Chock full of protein, iron, zinc and calcium, these nourishing, oil-rich seeds form the basis of Mideast cuisine staples becoming popular worldwide, such as tahini, hummus and halva. Sesame oil is essential in many Asian and African dishes.

Yet even though sesame has been cultivated for some 5, 500 years, the crop has traditionally been unprofitable because it is difficult to harvest and produces a low yield. Part of the problem is that a high percentage of sesame seeds are found to be unfit for human consumption.

Recently, an Israeli agricultural researcher won an award for fine-tuning a way to enhance the yield, size and even the nutritional quality of sesame, using genetic markers to indicate which strains have the most potential.

After meticulously screening and selectively breeding more than 100, 000 sesame-seed variants of many different hues at his lab, Hebrew University Prof. Zvi Peleg developed an improved sesame cultivar with bigger seeds, more seeds per pod and better bioavailability of the nutrients in the seeds. He and his team are also working to make sesame pods that can be picked by machine rather than by hand.

 

Peleg’s sesame field in bloom. Photo courtesy of American Friends of Hebrew University