Here Comes the Genetically Modified, Disease-Resilient Super Spud

Researchers are trying to make a new potato that would require fewer pesticides and make healthier crisps.

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Jun 5 2015, 1:50pm

Boring regular potatoes. Image: 16:9clue/Flickr

Spuds are a staple diet for many people on Earth. While potatoes seem like robust vegetables, they're actually pretty susceptible to diseases. Enter the researchers from the TSL Potato Partnership Project, who want to use genetic modification to turn the lowly potato into a disease and bruise-resistant super spud.

The five-year super-spud project launched earlier this week, and is headed up by Jonathan Jones, a world leading expert on the genetics of plant diseases at Sainsbury Lab in the UK. The project is set to receive £841,000 ($129,0000) from the Horticulture and Potato Initiative (HAP), funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The overall aim is to create a new variety of potato that can pass through regulatory approval and eventually enter the US and EU market.

Jones said in a release that the team is still far from completing its mission (they just got started!), but he did point out the benefits that a genetically modified spud could have. "If [the potato] passes those tests and if it is approved for planting, this potato could prevent many tonnes of pesticides and fungicides being sprayed on our land, increase yields and make a healthier crisp or chip," he said.

In the UK, 120,000 hectares of land are set aside to grow spuds. However, cultivating this staple crop is actually no easy feat. The diseases afflicting potatoes cost UK spud farmers an average of £55 million per year in losses and control costs, potato cyst nematodes can cause up to £26 million per year in losses, bruising leads to wasted potatoes and leads to another £26 million in losses for farmers.

"We will need new, safe, disease-resistant and pest-resistant crops if we are to feed an increasing global population."

The researchers from the Sainsbury Lab and the University of Leeds are aiming to combine forces and create a Maris Piper potato (an English potato used for making fries and mash) that will be able to resist potato blight and potato cyst nematodes. According to an MIT report, the potato will contain three genes from Jones' research lab that are known to "confer resistance to late blight", and two additional genes designed to "block infestation by a tiny worm called the potato cyst nematode."

The spud will also contain DNA used by the American company Simplot to genetically engineer a potato that recently received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

With a UN report finding that the world's population is set to rise to 9.6 billion by 2050, global food security will become an increasingly pressing issue. Jones, said that the global impacts of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s demonstrates just how serious spud diseases can be for food security.

"We will need new, safe, disease-resistant and pest-resistant crops if we are to feed an increasing global population and support the farming industry," he said in the release.

Growing stronger spuds could mean losing less money and using less pesticides. The researchers are set to conduct field trials in a confined area in Norwich a city in East England in Spring 2016. If the project is a success, these tubers will likely be on the market sometime within the the next eight to ten years. So, you'll probably be stuck with normal crisps for a while yet.

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