Around the country, determined plant breeders, farmers, and chefs are joining forces to reinvent the potato and the transform the way Americans perceive the versatile tuber. Consider what happened to apples: By the 1980s, Americans were so fed up with the dominant and inaptly named Red Delicious that all kinds of tastier varieties soared in popularity. Today, people expect mainstream grocery stores to offer a wide range of apples: Gala, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, Braeburn and Jonagold, to name a few. The potato’s champions want to bring this same kind of diversity to the humble spud. “We’re definitely seeing a trend towards more diversity,” says Shelley Jansky, a longtime potato breeder at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I would like all potato varieties marketed by name, people eating more fresh potatoes, thinking about flavor and texture, and realizing that not all potatoes are the same.”
To help fill in the gaps in the data, one of Jansky’s graduate students is currently creating detailed molecular flavor profiles of many different potatoes grown for the fresh market. She is also writing a grant proposal to identify the genes responsible for high and low starch levels. Similarly, Mishanec’s colleague Walter De Jong has pinpointed the genes responsible for red and purple skin and yellow flesh, as well as some of the genes that control whether these pigments saturate or merely speckle a spud.
Pinpointing color, flavor and texture genes will allow potato breeders to look for them in the DNA of potato seeds and young potato plants, which in turn helps them make smarter and more efficient crosses that enhance those traits — something breeders have already done for strawberries and tomatoes. This approach, known as marker-assisted selection, is an increasingly popular alternative to far more controversial genetic engineering.
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