Nieuws - 12 september 2002

Breeding potatoes with a gun in your pocket

Breeding potatoes with a gun in your pocket

When Jacob van Dam came to study in Wageningen he already knew that he would emigrate to Israel after graduating. "I am Jewish," he explains. "That's why I feel I belong in Israel. I believe that all Jews belong in Israel." He settled there in 1994, but came back to Wageningen this week to receive his PhD for research on poisonous glyco-alkaloids in potatoes.

Van Dam did his research at an Israeli equivalent of DLO, the ARO Volcani Center. His work meant a long car journey each day from his house in Samaria to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. According to Van Dam about a dozen Israelis have been killed along the same road in the past two years. "I've never faced danger," says Van Dam. "But I know there are places where you have to be extra careful, and I always have a 9mm with me, just in case." He hopes he'll never have to use it. "It's like having an airbag in the car, you hope you never need it."

Van Dam does not regard his situation as special. All Israelis live under the same threat and worry that a bullet or a suicide bomber might bring their life to an end. "Our country is at war. In Holland you only see a fraction of what goes on in the news. The same is true for Israelis; there's too much going on to report it all. In the last two years six hundred Israelis have been killed in attacks. If it were up to the Palestinians there would have been ten times as many deaths. The Israeli government estimates that it has prevented ninety percent of the planned attacks."

It was under these conditions that Van Dam studied potatoes. "Why not? We can't only fight, the country needs building up as well. Potatoes do not grow well in hot countries like Israel. You have to cross them with wild potatoes to make them able to tolerate heat. But the new generation of hybrids has one important drawback: the concentration of poisonous glyco-alkaloids is sometimes dangerously high."

Van Dam went in search of hereditary characteristics in the hybrid potatoes which breeders might be able to use to read off how much glyco-alkaloids the tubers contain. "I looked at thirty characteristics but found no correlations. It's a shame, because it would have been great if we had managed to make a checklist." Nevertheless he earned a PhD with his research, which he did under supervision from Professor Paul Struik of Crop and Weed Ecology. Van Dam's comment: "I'm just glad it's finished now."

Willem Koert