The World's Wild Potatoes Might Save Their Domesticated Cousins

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She has bachelor's degrees in journalism and english literature from Boston University.
Wild Potatoes Might Save the World's Potatoes

Image by Carles Rodrigo Monzo / Stocksy

With agriculture facing the challenges of climate change, scientists from The Crop Wild Relatives Project set out on a worldwide project to collect, conserve, and catalog the naturally occurring wild relatives of our most popular crops, including the humble potato.

Among the samples they were looking to collect were crop wild relatives (CWR) of a total of 28 important crops, including rice, grains, fruits, vegetables, along with potatoes and their sweeter distant cousins. 

They focused on the potatoes' area of origin, which today is based in modern Peru. The versions of potatoes that are commonly cultivated today have "limited genetic diversity, and many species are susceptible to disease," according to the report, published today. The project was organized by Crop Trust over 10 years in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew Gardens.

While some species of wild potatoes have been used in breeding efforts, compared to the whopping 150 species of wild potatoes that are known, they have barely scratched the surface. Of those 150 varieties, 80 grow in Peru, where the researchers focused their potato search efforts. Of the 80 Peruvian potatoes, researchers were able to collect 37 species of potato across 322 different samples. Some of the species found had never been collected before, and others are critically endangered, making their collection ever more important.

"We found chinks in the armor of the global food system: Many important species were entirely absent from these collections or were seriously underrepresented in them," said Nora Castañeda-Álvarez, Ph.D., who worked as lead researcher on the study that identified species for collection. It was this realization of the gaps in knowledge that launched the project.

Our most popular domesticated crops, potatoes included, aren't strong enough to keep up with the changing environment. The potatoes that are cultivated currently are, for lack of a better word, picky. They like cold nights, forcing farmers to higher elevations as the climate has warmed up. The report points out that "Some of the crops' wild cousins happily grow from lowlands to 4,500 meters of altitude, surviving cold winters and dry, hot summers."

The aim of this project is not to replace our favorite starches but to improve them and make them more viable in an environmentally hectic world.

"These wild plants are related to a wide range of important crops. They hold the genetic diversity which breeders will need to improve those crops so we can feed nine billion people with nutritious food," said Hannes Dempenwolf, senior scientist and the head of global initiatives at the Crop Trust.

Diversifying the genetics of our potato crops will help them grow heartier by "borrowing" the genes from the wild varieties that help them resist environmental threats. The natural developments of these survival traits have allowed the wild species to thrive in changing conditions.

Now that samples have been collected, the next steps come to the complex process of using the wild species to strengthen our crops. The majority of the seeds collected are being held at Kew Gardens, which will maintain the original samples for distribution to the "gene banks" that will use them in pre-breeding processes. According to the Crop Trust, 19 of the crops collected are already being put into this process across 48 countries. It will take years before these advances are able to be applied to the food supply.

In addition to the complicated science that must be carried out to reap the benefits of these collections, further collection efforts are needed. While the priority of this project may have been related to improving crops' efficacy, it's also about conservation of the plants collected. 

"We have made incredible progress tracking down crop wild relatives that could hold the key to food's survival," said Marie Haga, the outgoing executive director of the Crop Trust. "But there is more to be done, and as threats to the world's biodiversity mount, this work is more urgent than ever.

With so many species of wild potatoes to be found around the world, it seems shocking that so few have been adopted for domestication, but these efforts are essential to help make sure the potatoes we've so lovingly adopted into our diet continue to nourish us for years (and generations) to come.

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