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September 4th, 2019 / Science Magazine, US

Unlike other major crops, however, the potato has not had a breeding breakthrough of the kind that helped dramatically boost yields during the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. The reason is that creating a new potato variety is slow and difficult, even by the patient standards of plant breeders. Commercial varieties carry four copies of each chromosome, which forces breeders to create and test hundreds of thousands of seedlings to find just one with the desired combination of traits. Readying a new variety for farm fields can take a decade or more.

Many countries continue to plant popular potato varieties that have remained essentially unchanged for decades. But new approaches, including genetic engineering, promise to add more options. Potato breeders are particularly excited about a radical new way of creating better varieties. This system, called hybrid diploid breeding, could cut the time required by more than half, make it easier to combine traits in one variety, and allow farmers to plant seeds instead of bulky chunks of tuber. “It will change the world tremendously,” says Paul Struik, an agronomist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

To breed a better potato, it helps to have plenty of genetic raw material on hand. But the world’s gene banks aren’t fully stocked with the richest source of valuable genes: the 107 potato species that grow in the wild. Habitat loss threatens many populations of those plants. In a bid to preserve that wild diversity before it vanishes, collectors have made their biggest push ever, part of a $50 million program coordinated by the Crop Trust, an intergovernmental organization based in Bonn, Germany.

The collectors and breeders are racing against warming, drying, and the proliferation of pests. “Because of climate change,” says Nigel Maxted, a conservation biologist at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, “we require higher levels of diversity than ever before.” Read more …