11 Jul 2011

NZ scientists help crack genetic code of the potato

10:23 pm on 11 July 2011

Scientists, including three from New Zealand, are getting under the skin of the potato, having cracked the genetic code of the humble spud.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature, could mean the development of pest-resistant and more nutritious varieties which deliver higher yields.

After years of chipping away, an international team of scientists have a genome, or genetic blueprint, for the world's third biggest food crop.

The genome is the map of the genes - each one controls different aspects of the organism and slight changes distinguish the varieties.

New Zealand's Jeanne Jacobs, from Plant and Food Research, is one of 96 scientists working on the project. She says with world population growth putting greater pressure on the planet, improvements to this staple food could reap huge benefits.

"It grows really well in all sorts of environments - latitudes as well as altitudes - and its grown increasingly in Third World countries to sustain the population there. And anything we can do to increase the nutritional value of the potato will help to sustain the world population."

Dr Jacobs says unlocking the genetic code could mean newer, smarter varieties of potato.

Knowing the genetic make-up of the vegetable could also mean a shorter time for new varieties to go from field to fork.

The Business Manager for Potatoes NZ, Ron Gall, says this breakthrough holds great potential throughout the industry.

"The breeders will be able to use the knowledge; the growers will benefit by having varieties which are much closer to their needs and which are more environmentally friendly. A disease resistant potato is drought resistant. They could be nutritionally much better than they are now."

But the science could get a roasting from some.

Nutritionist Sarah Elliott says the potato is already a healthy food which includes key nutrients such as vitamin C and potassium, and older heritage varieties are even better for you.

Any tinkering with food will have its opponents, she says.

"You will certainly get a pocket of society which will akin it to genetic modification and so there will be people who won't want to eat a potato that has been altered. They'll want to eat more foods as nature made them."

New Zealanders eat their way through an estimated 700,000 tonnes of spuds every year.

The country's favourite vegetable is reasonably priced, easy to grow year round, and can now be future-proofed into a super food.