World's Largest Potato Gene Bank

World's Largest Potato Gene Bank

Part of Ep. 2102 The Eyes Have It

The worlds largest potato gene bank just happens to be in Sturgeon Bay, Wis.  Research there includes everything from frost hardy potatoes to varieties that soon may be used in the fight against breast cancer.  Now there’s an eye-opener.

Premiere date: May 08, 2013

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley Ryan:

I am with Dr John Bamberg, head of the US Potato Gene Bank, north of Sturgeon Bay and I guess one of the first things that is a surprise to many people this is the world's largest potato gene bank. And you work part for the University of Wisconsin and part for the USDA.

 

John Bamberg:

Correct.

 

Shelley Ryan:

And I guess, well it has to be my first question what does a potato gene bank do?

 

John Bamberg:

In a nutshell, basically, we provide the raw materials for improving the potato crop.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So you're saving the genetic material of potatoes from all over the world.

 

John Bamberg:

Right.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Well, then, we're going to talk about what you do with those materials to improve the potato crop. I think that needs to start out with a botany lesson.

 

John Bamberg:

Yes. You see here a wild potato species and it's typical of the kind of things that we keep. So this is not cultivated, it's wild.

 

Shelley Ryan:

It's a wild one, okay.

 

John Bamberg:

If you're going to do sexual reproduction, which is mainly what we do you have a flower and you have the male parts there that, if you want to reproduce this and make it into seeds.

 

Shelley Ryan:

You need to collect pollen.

 

John Bamberg:

That's right. You have to collect pollen and you buzz that into a little capsule and then you reapply that to the stigma and, but in 4-6 weeks.

 

Shelley Ryan:

You buzz it.

 

John Bamberg:

You buzz it with a little buzzer - artificial bumblebee. So it happens in nature with a bumblebee.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Okay, so this here would be done in a greenhouse or lab to keep it separate.

 

John Bamberg:

Exactly.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Okay. And after you've pollinated them, what a lot of people are surprised is you don't get seed right away. You get these really cool berries or fruit.

 

John Bamberg:

It's very much like a tomato, except that these are smaller and green.

 

Shelley Ryan:

And not edible.

 

John Bamberg:

Right.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Okay.

 

John Bamberg:

This isn't the edible part. So you have each bag here will represent a different population. You see hundreds of fruit in there and each fruit will have hundreds of botanical seeds.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Well and what surprises me, you know, I've seen the fruit on a potato before, but you've got so many varieties in here. I mean compare this one to like this one. I had no idea there were so many choices. They're completely different.

 

John Bamberg:

Most of them are small green like that but you see some are elongated a little bit, some are actually pointed.

 

Shelley Ryan:

These are speckled.

 

John Bamberg:

Look like a little pepper.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Yeah.

 

John Bamberg:

Of course they're closely related to peppers.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Make sure I put them back in the right bag too.

 

John Bamberg:

You don't want to mix up the populations.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Now from the berries, I assume I'm going over here to seeds, right?

 

John Bamberg:

Right. So every packet like this, every little towel you see, came from one of these bags.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Wow.

 

John Bamberg:

So we'll have this process of washing with water, grinding up the fruit, and then sorting the seeds, sifting the seeds out and drying like this. You see there are hundreds of thousands of seeds there. And very light, long lived, so we can store them in the cooler.

 

Shelley Ryan:

And you store them in the cooler in packets like these?

 

John Bamberg:

Right. And that's also the form in which we would distribute to cooperators, researchers and breeders. A sample of maybe 50 seeds is typical. We've been doing this for like 60 years.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Wow. So well and I suppose to keep breeding and coming up with new stuff, it's an ongoing project for a long time. Now what do they look like if I was to grow them out by seed?

 

John Bamberg:

Okay, so our cooperators or if we need to grow them ourselves, we'll sow them in a small pot like this. So this is probably about 50 seeds actually.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Wow, okay.

 

John Bamberg:

So here, you can see, just like tomatoes that you would grow in your garden. You're getting a little plant there that you can transplant.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So these seeds stay viable in a cooler for a long time and you can pull them out any time you want to do that.

 

John Bamberg:

We're very lucky that they're the kind of seeds that can maybe keep cold their germination for 50-60 years.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Oh, wow.

 

John Bamberg:

Not all, but–

 

Shelley Ryan:

I have to ask though, now what's this?

 

John Bamberg:

That's the other form, exactly.

 

Shelley Ryan:

It looks like a little seedling.

 

John Bamberg:

Most potatoes you can reproduce by seed, but then you're going to scramble the genetics.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Right.

 

John Bamberg:

It won't keep that original genotype. So in essence, you can take a cutting like that. That's all sterile inside there.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Okay.

 

John Bamberg:

And you don't have to worry about diseases once you start with a clean plant and then they can be propagated in there and they can be sent in test tubes like that.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So this is a clone.

 

John Bamberg:

Exactly.

 

Shelley Ryan:

And then you can mail this anywhere to other researchers as well.

 

John Bamberg:

So that might actually be a variety, a named variety that you would recognize because we don't just work with wild, exotic things. We also have, you know, edible named--

 

Shelley Ryan:

Regular edible potatoes.

 

John Bamberg:

Like European varieties or Latin American varieties for example.

 

Shelley Ryan:

But you've got varieties over here I don't recognize. You've got a tin here. What are these and why do you have them?

 

John Bamberg:

Well, this is a recognizable form of potato, right?

 

Shelley Ryan:

Yeah, it has a tuber.

 

John Bamberg:

The tuber is the part you eat, but it doesn't look very edible because it's got these deep eyes. This is actually a cultivated form from the Andes in Latin America.

 

Shelley Ryan:

And why do you have it? Besides the fact that it's kind of pretty.

 

John Bamberg:

This particular one we found has tremendous antioxidants.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Really?

 

John Bamberg:

Yeah, we were with a cooperator in Washington state, who is actually looking for extremely antioxidants. We said we can grow a bunch out for you and you can test them. And in fact, like triple of kale. Tremendous levels of antioxidants.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So potatoes have just moved up the value scale for people trying to eat healthy.

 

John Bamberg:

Right. But like everything else in breeding, you have to get trait into the kind that you want to put on your table to eat.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Right, something you really want to bake. You have a long way to go on this one, John. These do not look like anything I want to eat.

 

John Bamberg:

Well, those are the little ones that we find in the wild. And in fact, we collected those from Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Okay, why? Well, at the time you didn't know.

 

John Bamberg:

Well, we do it just for exploring, but we have cooperators in Texas A&M University. We found that extracts from those, we don't know why, but extracts from those have a very strong anti-prostate cancer effect.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Awesome. Why are you keeping this one? What's special about this one?

 

John Bamberg:

Yeah, that's a good example. We, of course we're interested in things that help you to grow the crop better, disease, pest resistance or that kind of thing. But we're also interested in nutritional traits, like we already talked about a little bit. This one is called Solanum boliviense. Comes from Bolivia and close, nearby countries. And this one just within the last year or so we recognized as having tremendous levels of folate So, it amazing. With wild potatoes you think well if I could increase 20% that would be great, but these are four or five fold of what you get. So the potential is really there for breeding that into a crop. It would be valuable around the world. High folate. And look at this one. It's a little different.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Pretty again.

 

John Bamberg:

They don't all have, we've been looking at white flowers. Many of them have purple flowers as well and different leaf forms. But this one is Solanum ocadae and you know, tomatoes have this alkaloid tomatine that's been found to be a healthy thing to eat. But once the tomato turns red, the tomatine goes away, right?

 

Shelley Ryan:

I'm not eating the green tomatoes.

 

John Bamberg:

Well, you've got to eat green tomatoes or tomatillos or something like that. But these have, in their tubers mind you that tomato alkaloid and that's an anti-cancer.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Another anti-cancer.

 

John Bamberg:

Right.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So we need to, I guess end this by saying eat your potatoes.

 

John Bamberg:

Exactly.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Thanks, John.

 

 

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