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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service


Gene Bank at the Park

By Linda McGraw
November 4, 1998

What do national parks and forests have to do with the French fries future generations will eat? Maybe more than anyone can imagine today.

South America is the potato’s center of origin and its center of genetic diversity. But geneticist John B. Bamberg at the Agricultural Research Service has fresh respect for a pair of wild spuds-- Solanum jamesii and S. fendleri--found in state and national parks in the Southwest.

The parkland plants serve as free-living genetic reservoirs. They may harbor agriculturally valuable traits that might go unnoticed for decades until needed by crop breeders. And the plants’ genetic stock may rise the longer they can persist. In the wild, they can continue changing genetically in response to attack by insects, diseases, animals, drought and fire.

The southwestern tubers’ genetic change has been confirmed. Analyses by Bamberg and colleagues show that recent collections of these plants have genetic fingerprints different from those of samples collected decades earlier at the same sites. The wild plants grow in Coronado National Forest in Arizona, Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, and other parks and forests.

Bamberg works at ARS’ Plant Introduction Station in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. There, the U.S. Potato Genebank contains nearly 5,000 samples of more than 150 potato species. Plant breeders and biotechnologists can tap into the Sturgeon Bay treasure chest for genetic traits to improve upon today’s potato cultivars.

The researchers aim to preserve genetic diversity in two ways: ex situ and in situ. Ex situ refers to the gene bank’s artificial environment; in situ is where plants grow in nature. A story about in situ wild potatoes, grapes and onions in the U.S. will appear in the December Agricultural Research magazine of ARS, the chief scientific arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: John B. Bamberg, ARS Plant Introduction Station, 4312 Highway 42, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235, phone (920) 743-5406, fax (920) 743-1080,

Last Modified: 8/22/2017
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