Searching for the super potato

Photo: Jim Cornall

As climate change continues to pose severe challenges to ensuring sustainable food supplies around the world, scientists from McGill University in Canada are looking for ways to improve the resilience and nutritional quality of potatoes.

Martina Strömvik and her team have created a potato super pangenome to identify genetic traits that can help produce the next super potato.

“Our super pangenome sheds light on the potato’s genetic diversity and what kinds of genetic traits could potentially be bred into our modern-day crop to make it better,” said Strömvik, who collaborated with researchers across Canada, the US and Peru.

“It represents 60 species and is the most extensive collection of genome sequence data for the potato and its relatives to date.”

A genome is an organism’s complete set of genetic instructions known as the DNA sequence, while a pangenome aims to capture the complete genetic diversity within a species, and a super pangenome also includes multiple species.

Disease-free and drought or frost-proof potatoes

The potato is a staple food source for many people around the world – and it’s one of the most important food crops globally, after rice and wheat in terms of human consumption.

“Wild potato species can teach us a lot about what genetic traits are critical in adapting to climate change and extreme weather, enhancing nutritional quality, and improving food security,” Strömvik said.

To build the potato pangenome, the researchers used supercomputers to crunch data from public databanks, including gene banks in Canada, Peru and the US.

According to the researchers, the pangenome can be used to answer many questions about the evolution of this important crop that was domesticated by Indigenous peoples in the mountains of southern Peru nearly 10,000 years ago. It could also be used to help identify specific genes to create a super spud using traditional breeding or gene editing technology.

“Scientists hope to develop something that can defend against various forms of diseases and better withstand extreme weather like lots of rain, frost, or a drought,” Strömvik explained.

“Pangenome analyses reveal impact of transposable elements and ploidy on the evolution of potato species” by Ilayda Bozan, Sai Reddy Achakkagari, Noelle L. Anglin, David Ellis, Helen H. Tai, and Martina V. Strömvik was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Jim Cornall is editor of Future Food Today and publisher at Ayr Coastal Media. He is an award-winning writer, editor, photographer, broadcaster, designer and author. Contact Jim here.