Issue 177: A Meal of Potatoes

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Public sector plant breeding produces one tough potato Robert Plaisted, Cornell University professor emeritus of plant breeding, and his colleagues, Bill Brodieand William Fry, professors in Cornell's plant pathology department, have just introduced a new potato New York 121. This small white potato is able to fend off late blight (the fungus P. Infestans, of "Irishpotato-famine" fame) as well as both races of golden nematodes, scab and potato virus Y (PVY).

The development of New York 121 dates back more than 30 years when Plaisted acquired seedsof potato varieties grown in the Andes mountains of South America. Repeated selection for adaptationto the New York region and for disease resistance produced the selection E74-7, the mother of NY 121.This selection was important because of its extreme resistance to potato mosaic viruses.

In 1984 Plaisted obtained seeds from the International Potato Centre in Peru that had resistanceto multiple races of the golden nematode, a soil-borne pest. One generation of breeding producedN43-288, the male parent of New York 121. This parent is mostly of Peruvian ancestry, but includesa wild species from Argentina. By dusting the female's (E74-7) pistil with the male's (N43-288) pollennine years ago, Plaisted bred a potato with multiple resistance.

New York 121 is a mid-season potato that will be good for boiling, perhaps even baking, but it isnot a good potato for making French fries or chips. Brodie explains that there are yield trade-offs inexchange for disease resistance, but overall he is happy about the potato.

In addition to the New York 121, Cornell also is introducing two other potato varieties, Keuka Goldand Eva. Keuka Gold is a yellow-flesh potato, good for boiling, which will be known for its flavour andhigh yields. It is also resistant to scab and golden nematodes. Eva has a bright white skin, also good for boiling, and it is resistant to the mosaic virus, goldenNematode, and scab. It has an unusually long tuber dormancy, which means the potato can be storedlonger.

The seed for New York 121 could be available as early as next season from the New YorkFoundation Seed Farm at Lake Placid, N.Y. Cornell University News Service, 9/2/00 As I reported in Farmageddon, Plasisted has also been responsible for a naturally bred potato quitecapable of warding off pests such as the Colorado Potato Beetle (CPB) and the leaf hopper.

"in 1992, researchers at Cornell University were playing with a hybrid potato bred from a wild type, solanumBerthaulthi, that has thin hairs on its foliage ... which secrete a sticky substance that traps and kills small insectsas they feed or reproduce. ... The CPB, for example, gets a serious case of constipation from the sticky secretionwhich causes its stomach to bloat, crushing its ovaries and curtailing its reproduction. Robert Plaisted, the Cornellprofessor doing the research, said the potato tastes like any other but comes equipped with the best method yetof providing a broad spectrum of resistance to insects. Plaisted says this "new" potato has found favour mainlywith organic growers. He hopes to have other varieties with similar characteristics available in the newmillennium.

"When I asked him about transgenic Bt potatoes, Plaisted told me that one of the problems with them is thatthey offer no deterrent to the leaf hopper, which is actually a bigger problem than the potato beetle because thehopper is very small and the damage is done before the farmer realizes there is a problem. When I asked whetherthe fascination with genetic engineering was affecting his research, he replied that fortunately he received specialgrants from the USDA and from an international foundation. Without those his work would not be possible.

Farmageddon, pp.103-4