An international consortium of scientists consisting of 97 researchers from 14 countries have deciphered the full genetic code of the potato. Their findings are published in the journal Nature.
The rice genome was completed in 2005 and a draft sequence of wheat was published last year.
Qu Dongyu, a potato farming specialist notes the study helped discover genes that define the growth and insect resistance of potatoes. The sequenced genome (the genome is the full DNA sequence of an organism, a map of the genes; each gene controls different aspects of the organism) will enable scientists to create new varieties of potato that are high in yield and quality and more resistant to insects and diseases, he said.
According to Nature News, the most important finding of the consortium’s initial analysis is the identification of more than 800 disease-resistance genes, each of which has potential for use in fighting diseases such as the potato cyst nematode and the potato blight pathogen Phytophthora infestans, famous for causing the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.
We now understand, in effect, the book of life of the potato, says Professor Iain Gordon, of the James Hutton Institute. We understand the genes and we can relate that to the traits that the potato has, to improve its productivity and to reduce the impact of pests and pathogens.”
The Independent notes 200 million tons of potatoes are consumed annually worldwide and are the fourth-largest staple crop after rice, wheat and maize. Potatoes are rich in nutrients such as vitamin C and folic acid and are seen as a critical crop in the effort to boost food production for a growing world population.
“The potato has been bred here for probably less than 400 years,” Professor Waugh said, also of the James Hutton Institute. “Despite all the effort, we still grow potato varieties that are over 100 years old. Potato improvement is a very slow process. What the potato genome allows us to do is to identify particular genes that most potatoes have that may have a unique function, such as a resistant gene that is unique to a certain variety to potatoes. It could be transferred using genetic technology to a well-known cultivar grown today.”
A short history of the potato courtesy of the Independent:
* Domesticated between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago by the natives of southern Peru in South America, where the potato grows in the wild on the slopes of the Andes.
* In 1536, Spanish conquistadors take potatoes grown by the Inca back to Europe to impress royalty.
* The word “potato” is derived from the Spanish “patata”, which is a compound of the native words “batata” and “papa”.
* In 1538, Sir Francis Drake and the astronomer Thomas Harriot were credited with bringing the potato from the Americas to Britain, where it was quickly found to grow well in the cool, damp climate. By the 19th century it had established itself as the staple crop that fed the workforce driving the Industrial Revolution.
* French scientist Antoine Parmentier in 1774 discovered the nutritional benefits of the potato which lead to the plant’s promotion in France.
* The potato crop of Ireland was devastated by the late blight fungus in 1845, triggering the Irish potato famine.
* In 1995, the potato became the first crop plant to be grown in space.