Potato is one of the world’s most important food crops, but the vulnerability of yield levels to plant stresses limit the crop’s uptake in some parts of the world, particularly in areas impacted by climate change.

This reduces the potato’s potential to support food security in such regions.

New research by James Hutton Institute plant scientists has found that a specific protein encoded by the potato genome is a key component of tuberisation – the process by which the potato plant initiates and develops tubers.

The finding is hugely relevant as it provides a key route to increasing productivity of a crop that is consumed regularly by over one billion people worldwide.

Dr. Mark Taylor, joint head of the Institute’s Potato Genetics and Physiology Group in Dundee and lead author of the study, said: “The earliness of tuberisation dictates the time to crop maturity and so is a crucial factor in potato agronomy.

“For years, potato breeders have exploited the natural variation in the onset of tuberisation to develop improved varieties for different latitudes, harvest times and markets where the effects of environmental and disease stresses are minimised.

Understanding the mechanism of tuber initiation in potato provides a new strategy to increase yields of a crop that is absolutely pivotal for global food security.

It is hoped that the genetic discovery will be harnessed by potato breeders to develop fast-maturing, more resilient potato varieties that will safeguard production in an era of climate change, work that is being taken forward with industry partners.

The research is published in the latest issue of The Plant Journal and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme and the Scottish Government’s RESAS Strategic Research Programme.