McGill researchers are on the hunt for a 'super potato'
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
A team from McGill University is on the trail of a 'super potato' after analyzing the genetic code of some 300 potato varieties and their wild cousins.
The super pan-genome they have assembled contains the genetic characteristics of some 60 potato species. This analysis could one day lead to cultivating a 'super potato' more resistant and more nutritious than ever.
"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 Professor Martina Stromvik, author of the study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Where could we find genetic material to resist drought or cold? Where do we find different genes to resist pathogens or insect pests?"
Wild varieties, said Stromvik, can be rich in information on this topic, including telling us which genes are essential for adapting to climate change and extreme weather conditions.
The super pan-genome assembled by the Montreal researchers could, therefore, reveal which genes would lead to the development of a potato capable of withstanding both disease and extreme weather.
"Let's take the example of the ice storm we had here in Quebec in the spring," said Stromvik. "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."
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.
Could we then one day envision creating a 'super potato'?
"Even if we try to create a super potato that can withstand anything, nature will always find a way to shuffle the deck," replied Stromvik, laughing. "Instead, we're trying to figure out how different varieties might grow in different conditions."
Potatoes, rice, and wheat are among the most popular and widely grown crops on the planet, making spuds the most popular non-grain crops.
When cooked with the skin on, potatoes are a good source of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C and potassium.
Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reveal that the average Canadian consumed 68.2 kilograms of potatoes in 2020. The top three countries in the world were Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Ireland, possibly the country most associated with the potato in the popular imagination, came only 30th, with an average per capita consumption of 60.7 kgs in 2020.
The UN agency stated that China (94.3 million metric tons), India (54.2 million metric tons) and Ukraine (21.4 million metric tons) were the main potato-producing countries in 2021.
Canada ranked 12th with 6.4 million metric tonnes, or around 2 per cent of total world production. Prince Edward Island alone produces about a quarter of all Canadian potatoes.
- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Sept. 7, 2023