The full genetic code of the potato plant has been deciphered by scientists who say that it will lead to the rapid development of new disease-resistant varieties of the world's most important non-cereal food crop.
An international consortium of research organisations has sequenced the 840m DNA “base pairs” that make up the 12 chromosomes of the potato genome. The breakthrough should lead to the identification of important genes that confer resistance to potato diseases such as late blight, a fungal infection that triggered the Irish potato famine of 1845.
It takes 10 to 12 years to breed a new variety of potato, but knowing the genome could cut the time by half and improve the end product by targeting the individual genes responsible for the desired traits, the scientists said.
“Anything that allows us to link genes with traits now will improve the rate at which we can produce a whole range of varieties by different methods,” said Professor Ian Gordon, chief executive of the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, which took a lead role in the project.
“We now understand, in effect, the book of life of the potato, we understand the genes and we can relate that to the traits that the potato has, to improve its productivity and to reduce the impact of pests and pathogens.”
Each year some 200 million tonnes of potatoes are eaten worldwide and they form the fourth largest staple crop after rice, wheat and maize.
The rice genome was completed in 2005 and a draft sequence of wheat was published last year. Unlike cereals, potatoes are rich in nutrients and are seen as a critical crop in the effort to boost food production for a growing world population.