With human-made pollution driving global temperatures to new heights, researchers at the University of Maine are developing a new species of potato they hope can beat the heat.
The school’s potato breeding program, led by Gregory Porter, is creating a variety via cross-pollination that can withstand a rapidly evolving climate, reports Bangor Daily News (BDN).
The breeding process, which can take a decade to achieve the desired results and another two to five years before it’s sold to the general public, isn’t as efficient as genetic modification, Porter told the newspaper. However, faster isn’t always better, considering the nuances necessary to produce a “super potato.”
“One of the advantages of what we do is you can combine a really wide range of improvements into a single variety,” Porter told BDN. “You have the potential advantage of something that is new and improved in really unique ways. For many things we need in potato improvement we have the characteristics available, we just need to cross the parents in the right way.”
The university’s creation of the Caribou russet, a type of potato bred specifically for robust crop yields, led to a bountiful year. However, it may not be equipped to handle hotter environments or excessive precipitation in the future.
“The predictions for climate change are heavier rainfall events, and potatoes don’t tolerate flooding or wet conditions for long without having other quality problems,” Porter said. “If we want potatoes to be continued to be produced successfully in Maine, we need to be able to produce varieties that can be resistant to change.”
Though warmer temperatures in Maine have extended the potato growing season, it has also led to increased populations of pests such as the Colorado potato beetle and disease-spreading aphids, BDN notes.
It makes the ongoing research all the more crucial since the starchy vegetable is a key player in Maine’s agricultural economy. The state produces 1 million tons of potatoes worth about $540 million, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, and the state is the eighth-largest potato supplier in the country.
It’s also one of several examples of scientists developing crops adapted to the effects of a changing and rapidly overheating planet. Researchers at Texas A&M have produced drought-proof melons, while experts at the University of Maryland have created heat-tolerant apples.
It’s unclear when the new potato species will be available to the masses, but a $500,000 grant from the USDA should help facilitate the process.
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