A team of Argentinian scientists led by Fernando Bravo Almonacid, independent researcher of CONICET at the Institute for Research on Genetic Engineering and Molecular Biology (INGEBI, CONICET-UBA), developed potato plants resistant to Potato Virus Y (PVY), a disease that affects more than 50 percent and reduces crop productivity from 20 to 80 percent, in the most severe cases.
"This virus causes deformation and discoloration of the leaves, which affects photosynthesis. This leads to reduced tuber growth and loss of crop productivity, "says Bravo Almonacid, adding that if the plant is also infected by another virus, lost productivity can increase significantly.
PVY is transmitted by insects (aphids) and infections may persist in subsequent generations of the tuber, which makes it difficult to eradicate the pest.
For six years 2000 plants of two different lines were tested in the provinces of Córdoba, Mendoza and Buenos Aires, with different soils and climates. The results were as expected: no PVY infection was observed in the genetically modified plants, while among those unmodified plants infection rate was high, between 60 to 80 percent.
To study how the modified plants react to their environment, the researchers chose virus free environments. From these tests it was concluded that genetically modified potatoes and those that are not, turn out to be identical from an agricultural point of view, in biochemical composition, in nutritional value and performance.
According to Alejandro Mentaberry, executive coordinator of the Science and Technology Office (GAGTEC), Ministry of Science, CONICET researcher and team member, there are "no significant differences between the modified potatoes and those that are not."
The importance of working with the potato crop lies in the fact that the potato is a Latin American plant and all its biodiversity and even their pathogens are found on the continent.
Mentaberry explains that a potato variety with improved resistance to PVY, first of all benefits small producers, especially those working in primary agriculture - very low-tech - and whose main problem is pests. In addition, the potato is grown industrially for use in any of its many formats such as potato chips or instant mashed potatoes.
"If we consider the uses given to this crop in the region, we could say that this work has a double impact on social and industrial level".
From the laboratory to the Argentinian market
Plant Biotechnology Laboratory Tecnoplant-SIDUS SA is responsible for carrying out the following steps that are related to the checks necessary to introduce a GM crop to market.
"GM technology is a useful tool to achieve a plant adapted to a particular need and in this case we have obtained very good results," says Valeria Rudoy, Head of Production SIDUS SA
At this time the scientific breakthrough is in the assessment phase number two and potatoes are being planted under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, under the regulations of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, specifically of the National Advisory Commission on Agricultural Biotechnology (CONABIA). The whole process is in turn overseen by the National Seed Institute (INASE), that handles the crops.
Once Phase II is completed in CONABIA and obtain approval from the Ministry of Agriculture, we proceed to the Market Assessment. In turn, the project has to be approved by the Food Quality Management SENASA dependent. "After obtaining these permits this new PVY resistant potato can be marketed," says Rudoy.