An international team of scientists – led by researchers at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland – have succeeded in mapping the genome of the potato, the first leading UK crop plant to be fully sequenced.
The scientists said the achievement could speed the process and cut the cost of developing new varieties of potato, helping to ensure food security because of improved yield, quality, nutritional value, and resistance to pests and diseases. At present it takes up to 12 years to breed a new variety.
Professor Iain Gordon, chief executive of the James Hutton Institute, said this achievement was the result of many years of hard effort by a Dundee-based team that worked closely with Dundee University. Imperial College, London, was another partner.
Prof Gordon said: “With global population forecast to reach 9bn by 2050, there will be many more mouths to feed and the genome sequence will allow scientists and breeders to increase the efficiency of potato production to help meet this challenge.”
The researchers said the potato was one of the principal staple foods in the world and the most important non-grain crop for human consumption, particularly in developing countries, which now accounted for more than half of the global harvest. The potato’s ease of cultivation and high energy content had made it a valuable cash crop for millions of farmers.
After wheat and rice, potato is the third most important food crop.
By 2020 it is estimated that more than 2bn people worldwide will depend on potato for food, animal feed, or income.
Diseases such as late blight cost an £3bn in losses to the worldwide potato crop, which totalled 330m tonnes in 2009. These diseases are still largely controlled by frequent application of fungicides.
Scientists expect that one of the first benefits of knowing the potato genome sequence will be a breakthrough in their ability to characterise and select genes involved in disease resistance.
Dr Glenn Bryan, who led the UK team, said the use of genetics-based selection methods for potatoes was very promising and technology to exploit the genome sequence immediately was already being prepared in the UK and elsewhere.
“In addition, an understanding of the genetic blueprint for potato gives us the option of introducing – through breeding programmes – desirable characteristics into existing varieties, such as enhanced pest and disease resistance and improved tuber quality characteristics,” he said.
Potato is a member of the solanaceae, a plant family that includes several other economically important species, such as tomatoes, aubergines and peppers.
Gerard Bishop, of Imperial College, London, said: “The wider crop research community has been eagerly anticipating this news; the potato genome will also help our understanding of closely related crops such as tomato, which will be of enormous benefit.”