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September 29, 2009

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Scientists map potato's genetic code

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 plant biologist from Michigan State University in the United States who worked on the project.

"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 US.

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.

The work took off with development of a new computer program at China's Beijing Genomics Institute that allows 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 and is used in flood-prone Bangladesh.

First cultivated in South America 7,000 years ago, the potato is grown on every continent but Antarctica. It's closely relative to 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. The world's leading potato eaters are in Belarus, where about 180 kilograms are consumed annually for each resident.

Potatoes are subject to a range of viral, fungal and bacterial diseases.

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.

Researchers hope the potato genome will lead to a major breakthrough in their ability to develop varieties resistant to late blight and other diseases.


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