WASHINGTON -- Natural nutritional goodness, agronomic adaptability and culinary versatility combined with human scientific ingenuity are rapidly moving the simple potato into center stage in the fight against world hunger.
Though the potato has been cultivated for 6,000 years and has sustained civilizations from the Incas to the Irish, it has only recently achieved global appreciation and become an important dietary component in more than 130 countries.
Now the fourth most important food crop worldwide, after wheat, rice and corn, the potato is expected to supply an even larger share of the world's calories and essential nutrients in the next century if scientific manipulations, many of them genetically engineered, succeed in conquering various diseases and expanding the potato's natural ability to grow almost anywhere to an even greater range.
The potato can already supply more nutritious food faster and with less land than any other foodstuff now widely grown. With almost no fat, a vegetable protein that is nearly as nourishing as milk protein and a laundry list of vitamins and minerals, the potato comes close to being a perfect source of nourishment.
At a symposium at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington recently, scientists from the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, and elsewhere outlined what they called "an underground revolution" in potato research.
They say it could let the potato do for the tropics what it did for Europe in the 18th century, when the secure food supply it provided paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.
Thousands of years before the Europeans adopted the potato, the extraordinary Incan civilization was sustained by the many varieties that grew wild in the plant's Andean homeland and were brought under cultivation.
As Dr. John H. Dodds, who heads the Peruvian center's department of plant genetic resources, put it, "The true treasure of the Andes was not the gold the Spanish conquerors sought but the potatoes they trampled."
Today the developing world produces a third of the world's potato crop, and production has tripled since 1950, according to Dr. Richard L. Sawyer, director general of the Lima center.
A lowly food Europeans summarily rejected when Christopher Columbus brought it from the New World, the potato is now gaining rapidly in long-deserved dietary status thanks to the inexorable international spread of American fast food, especially in Japan and Southeast Asia, where McDonald's and other fast-food ventures are expanding.
Nearly every fast-food meal is accompanied by "American fries," as they are known in the Far East, Dr. Sawyer said.
The research center in Lima houses about 5,000 varieties of potatoes that are being maintained as tissue cultures and kept germ-free.
The collection aims to preserve the vast genetic diversity of the crop and to serve as a source of characteristics that can improve domesticated potatoes.
It has been duplicated in two other locations and continues to expand through the efforts of an intrepid plant scientist, Dr. Carlos Ochoa.
A plant breeder, taxonomist and explorer, he has spent 40 years combing the South American birthplace of potatoes -- from the high Andes to the warm Amazon jungle -- looking for new potato species. He has discovered 18 of the 230 known species.
He explained that a single wild species was the source of resistance to late blight, the fungal disease that wiped out the Irish potato crop in 1845, causing a famine that killed one million people and forced one million to two million to leave their homeland.
A half-century after the famine, the wild genes that conferred resistance to late blight were bred into cultivated potatoes and still serve as the main weapon against this disease.
Even today, with only six varieties yielding 80 percent of North America's potato crop, production can easily fall prey to a chemically uncontrollable disease or pestilence to which this limited gene pool is susceptible.
But modern scientists no longer depend on the long, laborious, unpredictable technique of traditional plant breeding -- a 25-year process -- to introduce new genes into crops such as the potato.
This ancient crop has already become the beneficiary of one of the most modern methods of genetic engineering: the introduction of synthetic genes that can improve the already high nutritional value of the potato and confer resistance to a wide range of diseases and pests.
In collaboration with Dr. Jesse Jaynes at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Dr. Dodds is using a bacterium that causes plant tumors to act as a genetic engineer.
In nature, this microorganism, agrobacterium tumefaciens, inserts a small fragment of its DNA into the nucleus of plant cells, which accept the new material as part of its own.
So, the scientists reasoned, why not use agrobacterium to insert their own synthetic gene segments into the potato cell?