December 6, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Does the apparently harmless potato have a dark side? 2015 may well bring the rise of a new GM variety to help us avoid cancer-causing chemicals..

potatoThe potato: worldwide production of 45.4 tonnes per hectare in 2012, two thirds of which is eaten directly by humans. The average global citizen in the first decade eats about 33kg of this starchy tuber. It is classed as a staple food, routinely eaten worldwide. Potatoes are best known as a source of carbohydrate, however they should also be credited in terms of their nutritional value, loaded with vitamins and minerals such as thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), vitamin E, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous are to name a few. In addition, potatoes also contain with phytochemicals and natural phenols, for example carotenoids and chlorogenic acid respectively. So all seems good for the potatoes.

However, what if I was to tell you that these spuds share a dark secret?

Cancer. A word that terrifies most people. So you have your potato, what do you then do? You fry it, roast it, or bake it. The potato is basically heated. This heating causes high concentrations of the amino acid asparagine (present in some varieties of potato) to break down in the presence of certain sugar molecules, producing acrylamide. As reported by the world health organisation, acrylamide is carcinogenic effecting the nervous and reproductive systems. Regulatory authorities’ worldwide state that they wish to see the dietary intake of acrylamide reduced. This seems a major task considering there is a clear worldwide dependence on the crop.

The J.R Simplot Company specialise in the agricultural provision of potatoes. In March 2013, they submitted a petition to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Animals and Plant inspection services (APHIS); for the deregulation of a genetically modified potato crop which naturally produced less acrylamide. DNA from different potato strains naturally producing less acrylamide was recombined with a plasmid; the DNA insert is designed to silence four different genes. Three of which are responsible for the accumulation of acrylamide. The suppression of the fourth gene resulted in a non-browning phenotype; that is, reduced bruising. Hence, not only is this new potato variety better for individual health, reducing acrylamide content; the 40% reduction in the level of dark-spot bruising is estimated to result in a reduction in the annual potato waste by 181,437 tonnes.

The amount of acrylamide that is consumed before negative health effects occur is unknown. However, the benefits achieved via waste reduction to farmers increasing yields is enough to encourage licensing of the potato to select partners for test markets; estimated to be achieved in 2015. In addition, the new varieties produced are done so via the introduction of novel genes from other potato varieties, rather than from different organisms. It is thus hoped that this will make the crop more welcoming to consumers and anti-GMO advocates.

Image reproduced from Wikimedia commons/Lumbar