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    As humans prepare to blast off to Mars, there is still the question of what they’ll eat once they colonize the red planet. Scientists who have traveled here to the Peruvian desert say they have the answer. Potatoes.

    Researchers at the Lima-based International Potato Center (CIP) and scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are studying which type of potato could be best suited for extraterrestrial farming to support a human settlement on Mars. If everything goes as planned, the Martian colonies could be munching on french fries, chips and mashed potatoes one day.

    “It’s got to be a Martian potato that tastes good,” Julio Valdivia-Silva, a Peruvian astrobiologist with NASA, said while surveying the reddish-brown desert on a trip to collect soil. “It’s a big challenge to take a living organism somewhere else. We’ve never done this before.”

    The idea is literally science fiction, included in the Hollywood blockbuster “The Martian,” where Matt Damon played a stranded astronaut and botanist who plants potatoes to survive on Mars. It’s also not so far-fetched.

    Mars One, a Dutch non-profit foundation, plans to send individuals to the planet in about 10 years on a one-way trip to establish a permanent colony. Inventor Elon Musk says his spacecraft company, SpaceX, also hopes to send humans within a decade but warned during a start-up conference in Hong Kong in January that it would be “hard and dangerous and difficult in every way you can imagine.”

    NASA, which landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012 and found last year that water flows there, has recently announced plans to land astronauts. That will be when the potato comes in handy.

    “When humans go to Mars, they will want to grow things. They’ll need food,” said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and participant in the potato study. “I think we’ll be able to find varieties of potatoes that will grow at cold and low-pressure conditions. That would be interesting to know for Mars applications.”

    Source: Wall Street Journal

    United States

    The Little Potato Company is forking over more than US$20 million to spread its roots to Wisconsin. Officials from the Canada-based company — which specializes in cultivating the petite creamer potato — announced in April they will open a U.S. head office and packing facility in DeForest, Wisc.

    Sandy Gleddie, vice-president of operations for The Little Potato Company, said the 130,000-square-foot facility will hire 50 people when the building opens in January 2017 and the staff will grow to 130 in the next two to three years.

    The addition of jobs in the food industry is an exciting prospect in a region that has been rocked by closure announcements at Oscar Mayer, which is closing its 1,000-worker plant on Madison’s North Side by early 2017, and Tyson Foods, which by year’s end will close a Jefferson pepperoni plant that employs 400 people.

    “It’s a proactive effort to realign some of the skill sets from the closings,” said Sam Blahnik, community development director for DeForest. “As [the businesses] go out, we’ll be opening up opportunities for (workers) to come here.”

    The US$20-million project is being assisted by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. with $740,000 in business development tax credits, which are earned through investment and job creation requirements, according to the company and WEDC.

    “By locating its U.S. headquarters in DeForest, The Little Potato Company leverages Wisconsin’s strong agricultural history and global leadership in food processing, tapping exceptional educational resources and an unmatched supply chain,” WEDC secretary and CEO Mark Hogan said in a statement.

    Source: Wisconsin State Journal


    United Kingdom

    Scientists are preparing to weaponize a parasitic worm’s DNA against it to prevent the loss of billions of dollars worth of potatoes every year.

    The parasitic yellow potato cyst nematode (PCN) worm devastates fields full of produce and, once established in a plot, can leave the land unworkable for potato farmers for up to 20 years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified the yellow PCN as potentially more dangerous than any insect or disease affecting the potato industry.

    Now an international research collaboration led by Scottish scientists has made an “exciting discovery” about the pest’s make-up. The team, headed by Dundee University and the James Hutton Institute in the U.K., is now planning to use a previously unknown genetic “signpost” to target the parasites.

    Sebastian Eves-van den Akker of Dundee University’s Division of Plant Sciences, based at the James Hutton Institute, said: “This is an exciting discovery which reveals the potato cyst nematode’s ‘parasitism toolkit’.

    “Once we had sequenced the genome of the nematode, we uncovered a hidden genetic code, or signpost, that points towards the molecular tools the nematode uses against plants. We believe this genetic code is actually how the nematode categorizes which genes it needs when infecting plants so, in a way, we can use their own signpost against them,” he said.

    “Using this information we will now be able to much better target how we can prevent nematode infection.”

    Source: The National


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