Science - January 9, 2012

Many potato varieties in Andes

In the course of an expedition in Ecuador, Alvaro Altaminaro was able to collect 174 local varieties of potato. The genetic diversity of the potato in this part of the Andes is greater than previously thought.

Altaminaro, who works for the DLO of Ecuador, was looking for indigenous varieties of potato in three regions. He found more local potato varieties in two of the three versions than had been found on previous expeditions in the nineteen seventies and eighties. He guesses that there are many more varieties waiting to be discovered, since the sampling of varieties was far from exhaustive. That is good news for potato breeders. Earlier research suggested a loss of genetic diversity.

Local varieties include potato varieties which are maintained by local farmers without significant use of selection and breeding processes. The question is whether farmers will continue to do this. Altaminaro notices that it was mainly older small-scale who were still growing these local varieties. In order to preserve genetic diversity, cultural activities such as a 'diversity fair' are needed. During a fair of this kind in one of the regions, Altaminaro came across many new local varieties.

The PhD researcher also looked into the resistance of the potato varieties to the potato disease Phytophthora. Most of the varieties were somewhere between vulnerable and moderately resistant to this fungal pathogen, but a few varieties were really resistant. This holds out hopes for breeding for resistance in Ecuador. Two years ago Wageningen PhD researcher Stef de Haan found that Andean farmers in Peru were maintaining the genetic diversity of the potato too. De Haan found more than 400 unique potato varieties, which equalled the collection at potato institute CIP, dating from 1975. De Haan also concluded that there was no question of genetic erosion in the potato in the Andes.
Alvaro Altaminaro received his PhD from Richard Visser, professor of Plant Breeding, on 20 December.

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