"Potato, po-tah-to, tomato, to-mah-to, let's call the...

GALLIMAUFRY

April 23, 1994

"Potato, po-tah-to, tomato, to-mah-to, let's call the whole thing off" -- Genetically correct refrain of old standard.

Everyone knows that potato and tomato are the closest of partners when it comes to creating limericks and other rhymes.

Most spellers, including those who took remedial lessons in the White House, know that they are both correctly spelled without an ultimate "e". And that they both add "es" to form the plural.

Aside from those shared attributes of language, however, the two don't appear to have much in common, even when they sometimes co-habit in the same casserole.

But now scientists are saying that their plants look very much alike and share similar genetic backgrounds.

So much so that the United States Department of Agriculture recommends that the plants of these two popular foods be grouped in the same plant genus (the taxonomic classification just below family.)

As a breakthrough in genetic evolution, this conclusion may seem like small potatoes, but it appears to settle (for the present) the centuries old debate among scientists about the relationship of the rhyming pair.

Botanists conducted detailed research and comparisons of such things as their fruit, flowers and plant structures

Using modern technology, researchers examined the DNA, or fundamental material, of tomatoes and potatoes and some of their recognized vegetable kin.

Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish botanist who developed the plant family tree, or taxonomy, that is still used today, had placed the tomato and potato in the same genus.

But another scientist soon "corrected" that botanical lineage and separated the two plants into different genera, and the discussion subsequently simmered quietly among scientists who care about such things.

The two species seem to have more in common in the plants of their wild varieties than in domestically cultivated forms. Their appearances as foods are no clue to kinship, however, since we eat the fruit of the tomato plant and the root tubers of the potato.

* * *

EARLY MORNING adult joggers in Baltimore County have more to observe than the premature return of Daylight Saving Time.

As they are out and about in semi-darkness, so are flocks of yellow school buses. Under the extended school day decreed to make up for lost snow days, youngsters are being picked up early and deposited later.

No verbal protests are being heard at bus pickup points, however. Nothing disturbs the warbling of springtime birds or the blooming of springtime flowers. The kids are just too sleepy as they wait for the bus to come by dawn's early light.

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