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Shelley Jansky, potato breeding revolution on cover of this week's issue of Science magazine

This spud’s for you: A breeding revolution could unleash the potential of potato | Science | AAAS

Diverse potatoes, such as these from Peru, will help breeders create resilient new varieties. JIM RICHARDSON/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

THE SACRED VALLEY OF THE INCAS IN PERU—On a bleak, brown hill here, David Ellis examines a test plot of potato plants and shakes his head. “They’re dead, dead, dead,” he says. Pests and lack of rain have laid waste to all 17 varieties that researchers had planted.

It is a worrying sign for Ellis, the now-retired director of the gene bank at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. People have grown potatoes in this rugged stretch of the Andes for thousands of years. In recent years, that task has gotten tougher, in part because of climate change. Drought and frost are striking more often. The rains come later, shortening the growing season. And warmer temperatures have allowed moths and weevils to encroach from lower elevations.

To find potatoes that can cope with those challenges, researchers and Peruvian farmers are testing dozens of the 4350 locally cultivated varieties, or landraces, kept in CIP’s refrigerated storage. The plants in this plot fell short. “Native landraces evolved over time,” Ellis says. But, he says, climate change is happening “too fast for these varieties to adapt.”

In Peru and around the world, enhancing the potato has become a high priority. It is the most important food crop after wheat and rice. Potatoes are already a staple for 1.3 billion people, and the nutritious tubers are becoming increasingly popular in the developing world. Keeping up with the demand means adapting the potato to various soils and climates. It must also resist new threats from pests, disease, heat, and drought.

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The Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of the four original departments of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and was founded in 1889. Home to 12 state-supported faculty members and 25 staff members, as well as 8 federally-supported faculty members, the department serves as a home for instruction, research, and outreach activities in many aspects of horticultural science. Since the 1960s, our department has benefitted from a strong partnership with the Vegetable and Cranberry Research Unit of USDA-ARS, which provides support for the 8 federally supported faculty programs, staff, and students.

The Department provides programs that are focused on fundamental studies of plant biology, crop production, and utilization of horticultural crops. It also provides educational opportunities for the pursuit of careers in horticulture, strengthens the competitive position of Wisconsin's horticulture industry, and works to increase the use of plants for environmental improvement and as a source of personal enrichment. The work of department faculty, staff, and students has made substantial impacts in the state and nation for over 125 years.