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To analyze genes in potatoes, William Belknap prepares potato tissue under liquid nitrogen.

Potato Gene Engineering Research Should Benefit Andes Farmers

By Marcia Wood
November 15, 1999

New potato genes built by scientists at the Agricultural Research Service might boost the health of subsistence farm families in villages throughout the Andes mountains. The Andean region of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador is the ancestral home of the potato, America's most popular vegetable.

ARS scientists hope to improve the nutritional value of Andean potatoes by blocking natural but bitter compounds called glycoalkaloids. Some Andean communities use a processing technique to remove the glycoalkaloids, but it also removes proteins and vitamins as well.

ARS scientists manipulated the potato's own genes to help block formation of a key glycoalkaloid. In experiments using potato plants with the rebuilt genes, they reduced glycoalkaloid levels up to about 40 percent in preliminary field tests and up to 60 percent in greenhouse tests. Efforts will continue to further reduce the levels. ARS plant physiologist William R. Belknap leads the project at the agency's Western Regional Research Center, Albany, Calif.

American potato growers and breeders should also benefit from this biotechnology research. It may enable them to use insect- or disease-resistant traits from native tubers that would today be removed from breeding programs because of high glycoalkaloid levels. Some Andean spuds are primitive but are frost-tolerant. They may have other traits that could broaden the biological diversity and quality of potatoes in tuber-breeding programs for the Andean region and the U.S.

ARS, the USDA's chief research agency, has a patent for the anti-glycoalkaloid techniques and has licensed the technology to Small Potatoes, Inc., of Madison, Wis. Company president Peter J. Joyce has agreed to provide the technology to developing countries in the Andean region.

After learning about the research, the International Potato Center in La Molina, Peru, contacted Belknap to arrange to test the new genes there. The experiments are part of the potato center's on-going research with gene-engineered potatoes, begun more than a decade ago. The research complies with Peru's biosafety regulations and is closely monitored by the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture. International Potato Center molecular biologist Carmen M. Herrera Gutierrez recently completed a 5-week stint with the ARS scientific team in Albany.

Scientific contact: William R. Belknap, Crop Improvement and Utilization Research Unit, ARS Western Regional Research Center, 800 Buchanan St., Albany, CA 94710, phone (510) 559-6072, fax (510) 559-5777,

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