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Roots we Like

1 December 2016

Potatoes – who set the growing of potatoes into motion? How did they develop them from a wild species that is toxic? Even in modern potatoes, when tubers go green it is advised not to eat them as they possess dreaded toxins (and the same goes for the small fruitlets that form after flowering). Somebody first grew and ate the ancestors of our King Edwards (good mashers) and Charlottes (good firm salad variety) and many other modern varieties (different favourites in different countries). Scientists have tracked down early domestication to a region of the Andes in southern Peru/ NW Bolivia, to the western Titicaca basin. Presumably this is not too distant from Lake Titicaca, and the high ridge of land that was once at sea level (but potatoes don't go back that long ago of course). How did the pioneer potato eaters get around the problem of toxicity? Perhaps they were ground up like acorns in the old world – or perhaps they stumbled on a set of tubers that were not toxic and everything developed out of that one biological oddity? Would they have gone around tasting toxic tubers until they found a few specimens that were not toxic? One would have to be desperate – and very hungry. What other processes were at play?

See for example www.nytimes.com/2016/11/19/science/potato-domestication-andes.html or http://phys.org/print399630159.html

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