Biotech Updates

Plants from Darwin's Collection Reveal Ancestry of European Potato

July 3, 2019

A study has unveiled the origins and adaptation of the modern European potato using plants that were collected 350 years ago, including those from by Charles Darwin's 1834 voyage on HMS Beagle. The new genetic analysis led by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Germany settles the debate about the origins of the European potato. While Russian scholars thought that the European potato came from Chile, English researchers believed it has Andean origins. Results of the new study reveal that the European potato is in fact rooted in both regions of South America.

The researchers extracted DNA from 88 samples that included landraces, modern cultivars, and historical specimens kept in herbaria. The oldest sample from 1660, which was found in the Sloane herbarium at London's Natural History Museum. The study shows that European potatoes collected during the period 1650–1750 were closely related to Andean landraces. After their introduction to Europe, these potatoes mixed with Chilean genotypes. 

The first potatoes collected by Europeans came from the equatorial Andes in the 16th century, adapted to short days. Tubers from these potatoes only developed in late autumn as the days shortened, mimicking the day length and temperature cues of their original habitat. The research tracks the emergence of this adaptation in Europe and traces it to the 19th century, coinciding with an influx of Chilean potatoes and the transformation in the cultivation of potatoes in Europe. 

For more details, read the news release at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology website.