Wild Potatoes are being used to Develop Commercial Potatoes that will Resist Disease

by Annette Welsford 1 Comment
With potatoes being the number one veggie crop in the USA, it’s not surprising that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has dedicated a lot of time and money to doing all it can to develop potatoes that will resist the typical diseases that attack potatoes.
It’s not just the damage from potato diseases that costs the US economy a lot of money, it is also post-harvest losses that the USDA maintains are as high as 30%. And if it happens there, chances are the international potato industry is suffering similar losses as well.

What Geneticists are Doing

In Madison, Wisconsin in the USA, there are geneticists employed by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) who have been searching for wild potatoes that are naturally resistant to certain deadly diseases that constantly plague potatoes – including blight. And they are finding them too.

Diseases Geneticists are Fighting

One major problem-disease the scientists have been looking to find a solution for is Verticillium wilt, which is a fungal disease. It’s a tricky one, because it can remain active in the soil for as long as a decade and will strike when farmers least expect it to.

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American geneticists Dennis Halterman and Shelley Jansky from the ARS Vegetable Crops Research Unit with some of the plants they are working with. Photograph credit: USDA.
They have found a wild potato – Solanum chacoense – which appears to be resistant to Verticillium wilt, and they believe that the resistant gene is durable enough to hold up long-term in the commercial potatoes they have bred.
They have also identified at least one wild potato – Solanum verrucosum – that is highly resistant to late blight, and another that is resistant to early blight; and they have crossed these with one another. Now they are trying to cross this resultant “wild” potato with a cultivated potato in an endeavour to integrate the gene that will make the “new” potato resistant to both early and late blight.
Early blight, which also affects tomatoes, is a fungal problem that affects the leaves and stems of the plant. Ultimately it can drastically reduce the yield of both potatoes and tomatoes.
Late blight is also fungal. It is spread by wind and rain – and sometimes over very long distances. It’s a bad one because it survives on infected tubers making it easy for proliferation.
They are also working to find a wild potato that will resist common scab, a horribly common disease that is spread through the soil by bacteria that attack the tubers. While you can eat potatoes that are affected by scab, it’s ugly and not acceptable commercially.
Chances are they’ll do it too!
Knowing that there are disease-free possibilities, make sure you see if any of these are available before you buy your next potato seed.
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