Alberto Salas has dedicated his life to finding, researching, and preserving potato wild relatives. . He’s crisscrossed the Andes on foot, horseback, bus, plane, and car. He’s waded through thickets of cactus needles and nursed broken bones in remote areas when cell phones were a sci-fi notion of the future. He’s bribed busloads of people with offers of candy to temporarily stop on remote roadsides so he could unearth a funny-looking inedible treasure, the distant relatives of the common spuds we enjoy today.
While the wild relatives of the domesticated potato may not grace the family table, they could hold the key to helping secure potato production for future generations. Hearty by nature, wild potato relatives have evolved over time, often growing in inhospitable conditions. Hidden in their morphing DNA might be the key to creating modern potato varieties with built-in resistance to such farming challenges as pests and disease, severe weather, and prolonged drought.
At the age of 74, Alberto’s love for wild potato relatives shows no signs of waning. He recently recreated a trip he took 20 years ago. Over the course of 10 days, he reached altitudes where most gasp for breath, and covered 4,600 kilometers of road across five Peruvian Departments: Tacna, Moquegua, Cuzco, Arequipa, and Ayacucho.
Two decades ago, much of the ground covered on Alberto’s recent trip, could only be reached on foot. While the increase in paved roads might make remote areas more accessible, it also has an adverse effect on the wild relative population.
“Road construction affects the environment,” Alberto says. “Where there are roads, homes are built. Electric lines are extended to reach those new homes, and all of it destroys the habitat of potato wild relatives. Twenty years ago, when I visited one region at 4,600 meters, there were only ten houses. There was nowhere to eat breakfast. Now there is a whole town there. ”
Population growth and construction are the natural extensions of progress. Habitat loss is to be expected, making the collection of wild potato species even more critical. Preserving and studying the biodiversity of existing wild species can help inform research for generations to come.
At the crossroads between Arequipa and Chivay, Alberto used to collect potato wild relatives along the riverbank. Now those same potatoes are growing at the side of the highway, making them more vulnerable to extinction. The loss of a wild relative is a loss of all the genetic potential that species offers.
There are no road markers for wild potatoes. Researchers like Alberto need to rely on their knowledge of plant behavior and be on the lookout for the telltale signs that wild relatives are present. On this recent trip, Alberto searched for potatoes in the same areas where he’d sourced them over 20 years ago. To the group’s delight, they located one species that they had feared extinct.
For a farmer, a wild relative is usually relegated to the same category as a weed. They work to rid their land of these plants to make room for domesticated varieties. Agriculture, in general, has invaded the areas where potato wild relatives thrive. The genetic potential of potato wild relatives, however, could be precisely what will save the future of farming. Some species have developed resistance to certain pests and diseases. Use of wild relative genetic material in breeding could save millions of dollars by developing new varieties that minimize crop loss and the need for pesticide use.
Cacti often serve as a source of protection for potato wild relatives. The spines keep out would-be predators such as grazing llamas and birds looking to feast on wild potato leaves. When the cactus population dwindles, so do the species of the wild relatives that thrive in their shade and protection.
“Cacti make good firewood, they are fabulous fire starters,” Alberto says. “Many of them were cut down to use for cooking. This was once a forest of cacti; now there are only three cacti left. Fortunately, the majority of people are now cooking with gas which will help minimize future loss.”
It is not unusual to find wild potatoes growing alongside wild tomato species in Southern Peru.
“About 25,000 years ago the ancestors of tomato and potato plants separated,” Alberto says. “It is still very common to find them growing together and seeing them growing this way provides a window into what things were like in the past.”
Each species collected is diligently cataloged in the field. Careful note-taking of where the species was located and in what conditions serves as a guidepost for future expeditions.
In addition to the actual potatoes, samples of the plant and flowers are also saved and preserved. Comparisons with previously collected plant samples can help further the understanding of how plants have adapted over time.
To survive, wild relatives need to develop resilience to changing environmental pressures. Traits such as increased pest resilience or tolerance to drought can help with breeding efforts to develop modern varieties suited to the .
“Everything goes through an evolutionary process,” Alberto says. “We compare what we collected in 1998 with what we are collecting now. Visually it may not have changed, but it may have changed genetically. These trips allow us to see if its genes have changed.”
“Wild potato has 120 enemies: viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects, birds, mammals, but the hundred and twenty-first is the worst, man (in his search for food and income).”
Fortunately for potato wild relatives, among humankind, they also have a dedicated champion in Alberto Salas. He’s spent more than a half-century searching for and preserving wild potato species. Thanks to the diligence of researchers like Alberto, plant breeders can rely on wild relative genetic material to develop new varieties adapted to the pressures of an ever-changing world.
Alberto Salas is an agronomist specializing in potato wild relatives. He calculates that he’s taken around 300 trips to collect and catalog potato wild relatives.