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Cambridge University Herbarium


Origins of Our Food

Researchers: Rafal Gutaker & Hernan Burbano (Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tuebingen, Germany) and colleagues

Their are major gaps in our knowledge of the plants we eat every day. The historical plant material preserved in herbaria is essential for tracing the ancestry of crop varieties over the last few centuries, helping us to more fully understand modern crop varieties and explore measures to ensure better food security.

A multinational team of researchers has traced the ancestry of European potato cultivars from the 17th century to the modern day. They sequenced the genomes of contemporary plants and herbarium specimens, including one of from the Cambridge University Herbarium, collected by Charles Darwin on the Voyage of the Beagle in 1834. The research revealed the complex heritage of European potato varieties, caused by changing breeding practices over the course of nearly four centuries. The research also identified specific gene alleles which may have helped potatoes adapt to the European climate. Studies like these can inform future breeding and research, aiding the development of novel, resilient crop varieties.

Gutaker, R.M. et al. (2019). Origins & adaptation of European potatoes reconstructed from historical genomes. Nature Ecology & Evolution 3: 1093-1101.