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International research team cracks potato genome

A GLOBAL team of researchers has mapped the genetic code of the world's most popular vegetable - the potato.

The draft of the potato genome released last week represents the work of more than 50 scientists from 16 institutions and will provide a starting point for other researchers to develop sturdier, more nutritious potatoes.

That's important because the potato is widely grown and plays a central role in feeding the world's 6.3 billion people, said Robin Buell, a Michigan State University plant biologist who worked on the project. The university announced the results in the United States.

"The potato is the most important vegetable worldwide," Buell said. "This report on potato (genes) is a major milestone in genome mapping."

The Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium began work in 2006. It has 16 institutional members in Argentina, Britain, Chile, China, India, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Russia and the United States.

The potato genome has 12 chromosomes with 840 million base pairs, about a quarter the size of the human genome. The draft covers 95 percent of potato genes.

Launched by the Plant Breeding Department at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the work took off with development of a new computer program at China's Beijing Genomics Institute. The computer program allowed researchers to more easily pool results of their work on chromosome segments to create a full genetic map.

A 1999-2005 effort mapped the gene structure of rice. A nearly complete genome map of maize, or corn, was announced in 2008.

A gene map allows quicker development of new crop strains. The rice genome map has already led to the development of a variety that can survive being submerged in water and is used in flood-prone Bangladesh, according to the International Rice Research Institute.

First cultivated in South America about 7,000 years ago, the potato is now grown on every continent but Antarctica. It's a close relative of the tomato.

Potatoes are the world's fourth largest food crop after three grains - maize, rice and wheat. Farmers worldwide produced about 309 million tons of potatoes in 2007.

China is the world's largest consumer of potatoes at about 48 million tons a year. Per person, the world's leading potato eaters are in Belarus, where about 400 pounds (180 kilograms) are consumed annually for each resident.

Potatoes are subject to a range of viral, fungal and bacterial diseases that attack them above and below ground.

Most notorious is the so-called "late blight" that attacks potato foliage. It was responsible for the potato famine of the 1840s that killed about 1 million people in Ireland and caused a mass emigration.

On Sept. 14, a scientific team announced success in mapping the genome of the late blight pathogen, which still causes billions of dollars in damage to potato, tomato and other crops each year.

Researchers hope the potato genome will lead to a major breakthrough in their ability to develop varieties resistant to late blight and other diseases, according to the Scottish Crop Research Institute, another consortium member.

"Currently potato breeding takes about 10-12 years to develop a new variety," the institute said in a statement. "It is expected that being able to use the genome information will dramatically shorten the time taken to breed new varieties as well as reducing the cost."


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