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Page 103

HOW THE MODERN POTATO DEVELOPED

The potato that reached Europe in the late 1500s was the andigena (page 97). But how it became the modern potato is a matter of debate. When grown in Europe today, andigena's stolons are very slow to swell to form tubers, and it produces little or no yield. Differences in daylength between the short days of the central Andes and the long days of a northern European summer are the cause.

It is probably accidental that the andigena was transformed into a useful crop for Europe. In the 1600s and 1700s, some people propagated potatoes by planting botanical seeds. The resulting seedlings were highly variable; virtually every plant differed from all the others. This allowed a vast number of genes to be combined and expressed, and among the types that arose were some that could tuberize during long days.

This is the explanation believed by most potato geneticists. There is, however, a possible alternative: that an unrecorded ship introduced “long-day potatoes” from southern Chile. Chilean potatoes are almost certainly also derived from andigena, but for centuries they have been adapted to long-day production.

Whichever method transformed andigena, it was one of the most valuable genetic developments of all time; it gave the world what is now its fourth largest food crop: the modern potato.


only under short day conditions. Such restrictive daylength requirements have been overcome in other crops by selection and undoubtedly could be done again. Appropriate varieties usually appear when large numbers of plants are grown under long-day conditions—only the few adaptable ones produce a crop. Also, long-day types are most likely to be found in the southern limits of the range of each species in the Andes.18 The use of true seed to bring out daylength variability seems highly promising.

The bitter potatoes are unlikely to create much interest outside the Andes, where chuño would be hard to make under natural conditions.

As with other new produce (kiwifruit, for example), catchy names could be the key to consumer acceptance. For lesser-known potatoes, market-oriented names might, for instance, play up the brilliant colors, firm texture, bizarre shapes, or nutritive quality.19


18 The Chilean regions of Temuco and Chiloe seem likely to produce daylength-neutral types.
19 Reviewers of this chapter came up with the following provocative suggestions: rainbow, gemstone, jewel, hotdog, spiral, golden-delicious, corkscrew, early bird, or brillante potatoes.


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