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Traveling tubers

Standard potato lore has long held that the first tubers that came to Europe were from the high Andes (top), while varieties from the Chilean lowlands (middle) didn't arrive until after the devastating blights of the mid-1800s. But a new analysis of DNA from old plant collections reveals that Chilean spuds had crossed the pond by at least 1811, say Mercedes Ames and David Spooner, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The work highlights how herbarium specimens can help unravel the histories of crop plants such as the modern potato (bottom). Moreover, knowing that Chilean spuds also succumbed to the blight could have better informed efforts to breed resistant taters, the researchers report in the February American Journal of Botany.

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