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Using DNA, scientists hunt for the roots of the modern potato
Date:1/29/2008

MADISON -More than 99 percent of all modern potato varieties planted today are the direct descendents of varieties that once grew in the lowlands of south-central Chile. How Chilean germplasm came to dominate the modern potato-which spread worldwide from Europe-has been the subject of a long, contentious debate among scientists.

While some plant scientists have maintained that Chilean potatoes were the first to be planted in Europe, a more widely accepted story holds that European potatoes were originally descended from plants grown high in the Andes mountains between eastern Venezuela and northern Argentina. According to this theory, Andean potatoes were wiped out during the Great Irish Potato Famine, the 19th-century late-blight epidemic that devastated potato fields across Europe, initiating the import of Chilean varieties to re-establish the crop.

In a report published today in the American Journal of Botany, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Mercedes Ames and David Spooner say both theories are wrong. By analyzing the DNA of historical potato specimens, the researchers found that both Chilean and Andean potatoes were grown in Europe decades before and decades after the famine, the first direct evidence that the potatoes were grown simultaneously in Europe.

"Basically, we found that the Andean potatoes got to Europe first, around 1700. However, Chilean potatoes were starting to get popular there 34 years before the late blight epidemic," says Ames, a graduate student in UW-Madison's plant breeding and plant genetics program. The results also show that Andean potatoes grew as late as 1892 in Europe, proving they weren't polished off by the late blight epidemic-and that they grew side by side with Chilean potatoes for many decades before the Chilean types became dominant.

To start the project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, Ames visited herbaria throughout Europe in search of early pota
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Contact: David Spooner
david.spooner@ars.usda.gov
608-890-0309
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Source:Eurekalert

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