August 12, 2012

No small potatoes

The nation's most valuable vegetable – and the fourth most important crop worldwide – is stored and studied at the United States Potato Genebank in Wisconsin.

By MEG JONES McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

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The United States Potato Genebank has thousands of potato varieties from all over the world. Researchers there work to make potatoes more frost- and pest-resistant.

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South America, particularly an area straddling southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia, is where potatoes were first domesticated thousands of years ago. Scientists originally thought potatoes were farmed independently at many locations, but DNA research discovered most of the wild species could be traced back to a single origin.

David Spooner, a UW-Madison horticulture professor, has collected many of the potato varieties housed in the gene bank. He has been a potato collector and taxonomist for 27 years, making 14 potato-collecting expeditions in the United States and Latin America. Now some countries no longer allow germ plasm collections, and that makes the Sturgeon Bay facility even more important because of its diverse pool of varieties.

"The idea is to classify them so we can know more about them and can advise potato breeders to use them in their breeding work," Spooner said.

The fungus that caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and 1850s -- called late blight -- is still a problem throughout the world. Potatoes still must be treated with fungicides to combat the disease, so if researchers can breed a potato resistant to late blight, it would mean farmers would no longer spend much of their budget on chemicals.

And a solution to a disease dubbed zebra chip -- because it causes dark stripes in potatoes -- might be found through the U.S. Potato Genebank. Zebra chip has moved from potato fields in Mexico into the U.S., and so far researchers are trying to find a wild potato variety that might prove to be hearty enough to withstand the disease.

"The only glimmer of hope so far is from things directly from us including some tough hybrids with nontuber-bearing potatoes," Bamberg said.

 

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