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A Tale of Two Spuds

Tom Feilden | 13:02 UK time, Tuesday, 8 June 2010


Take a look at this picture - a tale of two potatoes.

The one on the left is a standard Desiree potato - very good for roasting and chips, but sadly somewhat prone to fungal infection.

The sorry looking excuse for a spud on the right is a wild relative of the Desiree which is actually poisonous to eat, but does have one highly desirable characteristic: It's developed a natural resistance to the fungal infections that cause late blight.

You can see where this is going, and if scientists at the John Innes Centre near Norwich had managed to cross these two by conventional plant breeding - producing a potato with all the culinary qualities of the Desiree, but with the added benefit of hardy resiliance - it would be hailed as some sort of super spud.

But that's not quite what has happened. The researchers, led by Professor Jonathan Jones, have managed to cross the potatoes, but they did it by genetic modification - isolating the genes that confer blight resistance from two species of wild potatoes, and inserting them into the genome of a conventional Desiree variety.

The results - in the shape of 300 genetically modified potato plants - are being sown on an experimental plot behind the Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre today.

"It's really very simple," says Professor Jones, "We identified a gene for late blight resistance in a wild potato from South America, and used biotechnology to sieve-out that gene from the 30,000 other genes in the plant, and then transfer it to the cultivated potato variety".

The stakes are high. Late blight is the disease that caused the Irish potato famine, and on average UK farmers spend between £30m and £50m a year spraying crops up to 15 times with chemical fungicides. If the trial goes well, Professor Jones says, it could lead to the development of new varieties that wouldn't need all those expensive treatments.

It's a sign of the times that as the plants go in the ground a 15ft wire fence bristling with CCTV cameras is also being erected around the trial plot. Previous GM crop trials have been targeted by environmental campaigners who claim the risks associated with genetically modified foods are simply too high.

Speaking on the programme this morning Friends of the Earth's Kirtana Chandrasekaran said the real reason why GM crops had not taken off in the UK was because they offered no benefit to consumers, issues around food safety remained unresolved, and similar advances could be achieved through conventional plant breeding at a fraction of the cost.


  • Comment number 1.

    "Friends of the Earth's Kirtana Chandrasekaran said the real reason why GM crops had not taken off in the UK was because they offered no benefit to consumers, issues around food safety remained unresolved, and similar advances could be achieved through conventional plant breeding at a fraction of the cost."

    And she was able to do so without anyone challenging her to provide the slightest evidence of her claims. Shocking.

  • Comment number 2.

    A few questions immediately occur to me.

    Chain link fences may keep humans out but not biology.

    If this blight resistant gene suddenly appears in plants outside the test plots, will the owners of those plants (as has happened elsewhere in the world after GM trials ) be sued for "stealing" the patented gene?

    If organic farmers in the vicinity find their crops are contaminated with the GM gene and thus no longer organic, do the experimenters carry sufficient liability insurance to compensate those local farmers for the loss of their businesses?

    For me GM is less about science and more about big business. Its less about feeding the world than gaining a commercial advantage that allows us to continue to exploit that developing world.

    With no public appetite (literally) within the EU for GM technology in our food crops, this research budget would be far better invested in helping the developing world cope directly with the negative consequences of climate change, and maximising their output through all the hugely underutilised conventional technologies already available.

    No appetite for GM here....

  • Comment number 3.

    we need to start growing food not finding solutions in the lab. GM is not the fix all it is made out to be, F1 was not the green revolution it was made out to be, it will not help in drought areas, or with blight or with feeding the world.... we do not need to feed the world we need to allow the world to feed itself. By letting peoples of the world grow their own food for their own tables and saving their own seeds to grow out again, this not only ensures the seed, open pollinated, will be suited to the area it is grown it will also stop the tide of big industry owning the seeds and therefore our control what we eat, as they do right now...scary but all too true.

  • Comment number 4.

    GM is not the answer to food shortage. We need to work with nature not tinker with something that even the greatest scientists in the world do not yet fully understand. GM advocates try to frighten us with scare stories about world food shortages, but it is very clear that GM is backed by very powerful vested interests that are more interested in profit than providing a long term sustainable food supply.
    Bravo for organic farmering.

  • Comment number 5.

    Single gene resistance to late blight? What happens to that gene tailored potato in areas where the mating form of the blight occurs? Vertical resistance genes usually peter out after a few years.

    The world needs more local plant clubs breeding for polygene horizontal resistance using mass recurrent selection techniques. Within 5 years a club could develop a crop suited for its regional conditions and parasites. Polygene resistance has proven to be durable using appropriate mass recurrent selection techniques. BTW, if you can't get your potato plant to set seed, try grafting it onto a tomato rootstock.


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