Can a disease-free, drought-proof potato exist? A map of the vegetable’s genes aims to find out

Published: 26 July 2023

A Canadian-led team has assembled the most extensive genetic roadmap of the potato to date, along with its closest relatives, in order to bolster the plant’s ability to cope with climate change and protect its future as a mainstay of global food security and sustainability.

"Fundamentally, our work tells us where in the (potato) family tree we should be looking for genetic diversity that growers could use to produce better harvests," explained Martina Strömvik, Chair of McGill's Department of Plant Science and a senior author on the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mapping the genes of the potato allows scientists to understand the potential for genetic variation and resilience. By uncovering the secrets hidden within potato varieties and their relatives' DNA sequences, or super-pangenome, they hope to develop new varieties that can withstand diseases and thrive under changing environmental conditions.

"Let's take the example of the ice storm we had here in Quebec in the spring," Dr. Strömvik told The Canadian Press. "If the potatoes had already been planted, would they have survived, or would they have died? These are really things we need to look at."

The super-pangenome can also be mined for genetic variations that help defend against various forms of disease, which are expected to increasingly affect Canadian potato crops as winters become warmer on average and pathogens that are more prevalent in the U.S. migrate northward. 

Incorporating the relevant genes could also lead to the creation of potatoes that keep longer or are more nutritious for the millions of people whose diets depend on them.

Read more from the McGill Newsroomthe Globe and Mail, Interesting Engineering, and Manitoba Co-operator.

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