Saturday, September 13, 2008

Scientists race to crack the potato's genetic code

Scientists around the world have teamed up to sequence the genome of the potato, hoping to crack the genetic code of one of the world's most important crops at a time of surging population growth and high food prices.

Solanum tuberosum, the scientific name of the humble white potato, looks simple. But it is chock full of mysteries hidden in its 12 chromosomes and 840 million DNA base pairs. Humans, by comparison, have 3 billion DNA base pairs.

The Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium includes scientists in 13 countries from New Zealand to India and Peru who are decoding different pieces of the genome.

It plans to have its work done in 2010 and will then make its findings public so plant breeders can create new seeds resistant to everything from droughts and diseases to extreme temperatures.

"We'll be able to design seeds more effectively and more efficiently after we know precisely which genes do what," said Gisella Orjeda, a biology professor at the Cayetano Heredia University in Lima who runs a lab that is sequencing one of the chromosomes.

Once the white potato genome is sequenced, researchers say it will become easier to identify genes in native and wild species of potatoes, which come in 5,000 varieties.

The potato, the world's third-most important food crop after wheat and rice, is being championed by food security experts who say it could cheaply feed an increasingly hungry world.

The United Nations named 2008 the International Year of the Potato to highlight its potential as an antidote to hunger.

Though the potato originated 8,000 years ago in Peru's Andes mountains, China is now the largest grower of the tuber. More farmers are planting it, especially in developing countries, as the world's population expands by 1 billion a decade.

Orjeda said the potato genome sequencing project, centred in the Netherlands (www.potatogenome.net), could usher in a new era for the potato, which its proponents call history's most important vegetable.

"The potato isn't just important now. It has always been important -- it's what enabled the Industrial Revolution in Europe (by allowing for a population boom), but also what caused the potato famine in Ireland," she said.

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