Scientists mix and match genes for better potatoes

June 30, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

LIMA, Peru -- In one room, scientists grow potato plants wit sticky hairs to see how they repel bugs. In another, the plants are pumped with hormones to see how they adapt to sunlight.

A scientist crushes moth larvae to remove a fungus that, when combined with talcum and water, creates a natural insecticide. Nearby, scientists mix and match genes to produce potatoes that are bigger, stronger and tastier -- not to mention better-looking.

Here in the country where the potato originated, scientists at the International Potato Center take potatoes seriously. They think a new-and-improved potato can help feed a hungry world in the 21st century.

"The potato is one answer to the population problem," said Hubert Zandstra, director of the center situated on the outskirts of the capital. "In agriculture, you need a balance between crops. Potatoes are highly nutritional and can grow almost anywhere."

Founded in 1971 by an American researcher working with the Peruvian government, the center has 600 employees stationed in 17 research stations around the world. Its $16 million annual budget is funded by international agencies and foreign governments.

The center is part of a network of 13 research facilities, such as the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, that are devising methods to increase food production in the developing world.

At the sprawling potato institute, which resembles a college campus except for its vast fields and numerous greenhouses, the potato is king, though many say a misunderstood one.

Officials point out, somewhat defensively, that the potato yields twice as much protein as wheat. Posters, displays and slide shows tout the potato's many attributes, including its 99.9 percent fat-free content and its ability to grow in a wider variety of climates than such other staples as corn, wheat and rice.

The center's lobby is decorated with ancient Indian pottery shaped like . . . well, like potatoes.

"The real treasures of the Americas was not its gold or silver, but its potatoes," said Edward Sulzberger, the director's assistant, as he held up one variety -- a tuber shaped like a coiled serpent. "The annual value of the potato crop far exceeds all the gold

stolen by the Spanish."

When the Spanish arrived in Peru in the 16th century, Indians had been cultivating potatoes for more than 3,000 years. The Incas worshipped potato spirits and believed that eating potatoes eased childbirth and cured internal injuries.

The Spanish reportedly brought potatoes to Europe in the 1500s, but many believed the tubers were poisonous because they belonged to the same botanical family as nightshade. The Scots didn't eat potatoes because they weren't mentioned in the Bible, and other Europeans believed potatoes caused leprosy, rickets and uncontrollable lust.

By the 18th century, however, people overcame their fear of potatoes and they became widespread in Europe. Moreover, potatoes could be stored, which freed workers from the farm and set up the industrial revolution. But reliance on a single species -- wiped out by the fungal disease known as late blight -- caused the great potato famine in Ireland that killed 1 million people between 1845 and 1851.

The potato institute has the world's largest collection of potatoes locked away in a sort of greenhouse vault. The collection includes samples from about 3,500 varieties of edible potatoes and 100 types of inedible wild potatoes and provides much of the genetic material for the worldwide research on potatoes.

"There are more than 4,000 known varieties of potatoes, each with different characteristics. Some are resistant to diseases. Others grow better in different climates. We use the genes to create new commercial varieties," explained Carlos Ochoa, a plant explorer who has discovered more types of potatoes than any man in history.

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