Searching for the Super Potato
Sunday, September 10th, 2023
This week’s core story is about: The super potato and food security.
KNEAD TO KNOW
A new report by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change found the world is not on track to meet the long-term goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, including the widely known target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The synthesis report lays the groundwork for the upcoming COP28 climate conference in the U.A.E. later this year, warning global leaders of a “rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
A new report by the World Meteorological Organization found the Earth just experienced its hottest three-month period on record. The report found the 2023 June-July-August season was the hottest on record by a wide margin, averaging a whopping 0.66 degrees Celsius above average. “Climate breakdown has begun,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.
A new analysis by Bloomberg Economics shows China’s recent economic slowdown means it may never overtake the U.S. economy. The analysis found China’s economy is slowing to an expected growth of 3.5% by 2030 and near 1% by 2050, far below previous projections of 4.3% and 1.6%, respectively. China’s gross domestic product is expected to exceed the U.S.’s in the mid 2040s, but only by “a small margin” before “falling back behind.”
A new policy paper jointly issued by the International Monetary Fund and the Financial Stability Board warned jurisdictions looking to regulate crypto against implementing “blanket bans” of the assets. The paper instead argues “comprehensive regulatory and supervisory oversight” is the best way to regulate crypto-assets and address the associated macroeconomic and financial stability risks. The paper also warns the potentially abrupt volatility of so-called global “stable coins,” which are designed to hold stable value, pose a greater risk to financial stability than other crypto.
Searching for the Super Potato
As climate change and extreme weather help drive global food insecurity, scientists are searching for ways to develop more resilient crops, including by creating the most robust potato super-pangenome to date.
This past July, five U.N. agencies jointly published an annual report on the state of global food security and nutrition, finding 735 million people worldwide faced hunger in 2022, including an additional 122 million since 2019. At the highest end of the estimates, the report found some 783 million people could be facing hunger, equivalent to around 1 in 10 people worldwide.
When launching the report, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for “intense and immediate global effort” to meet the U.N.’s goal of ending hunger, saying nations “must build resilience against the crises and shocks that drive food insecurity – from conflict to climate.”
As alluded to by Guterres, the “crises and shocks” driving food insecurity will take massive and innovative action to address, particularly those connected to our increasingly warming world and changing climate. Greater climate variability contributes to food insecurity not only by impacting agricultural production, but also by interrupting planting patterns, increasing pressure on limited natural resources, and negatively impacting biodiversity.
Research in the area has spawned a variety of solutions highlighting the roles of science and technology in combating food insecurity, including several solutions to increase agricultural production and crop resiliency. One of the targets: the “super potato” (sort of).
What the research says:
A new study by researchers at McGill University in Canada explored ways to improve the resilience and nutritional quality of the humble and universally beloved spud by creating what’s called a “super-pangenome.”
A genome is the complete set of genetic instructions for an organism, commonly known as its DNA sequence. A pangenome (or “pan-genome”) takes it further, representing the entire set of genes within a species, aiming to capture its complete genetic diversity.
A super-pangenome is even more expansive, representing a pangenome of the pangenomes of different species of a given organism. Put less scientifically, it’s a massive pangenome of multiple species. Research into super-pangenomes shows they offer “unprecedented opportunities for crop improvements.”
To create their potato super-pangenome, the researchers analyzed the genetic code of some 300 varieties of potatoes and their wild relatives (wild species are a particularly rich source of relevant genetic information), representing the combined genetic variations of 60 species.
“Our super-pangenome sheds light on the potato’s genetic diversity and what kinds of genetic traits could potentially be bred into our modern-day crop to make it better,” said lead author Martina Strömvik. “It represents 60 species and is the most extensive collection of genome sequence data for the potato and its relatives to date.”
Why it matters:
Potatoes are a staple food source for more than a billion people worldwide, second to only rice and wheat in terms of global human consumption. They’re produced in over 100 countries and can yield up to four times the food quantity of grain crops. They also produce more food per unit of water than any other major crop and are up to seven times more water efficient than cereals.
The researchers say their potato super-pangenome helps identify the genes responsible for important traits, like disease resistance, weather tolerance, and nutritional quality, offering scientists valuable insights into how to improve the world’s most important non-cereal crop.
“Basically, our work tells us where in the [potato] family tree we should look for genetic diversity that growers could use to produce better crops,” Strömvik told the Montreal Gazette. “Where could we find genetic material to resist drought or cold? Where are different genes found to resist pathogens or insect pests?”
The super-pangenome can one day lead to the development of a “super potato” that’s highly nutritious and capable of withstanding extreme weather, disease, and pests using traditional breeding or gene-editing technology, though that’s not quite the point.
“Even if we try to create a super potato capable of resisting everything, nature will always find a way to shuffle the cards,” Strömvik told the Montreal Gazette with a laugh. “Rather, we are trying to figure out how different varieties might grow in different conditions.”
So, maybe regional super potatoes are what we’ll actually get.
Global Cancer Cases Among People Under 50 Have Risen Dramatically Over the Past Three Decades
A new study by an international team of researchers found early-onset cancer cases (meaning, cases among people aged 18 to 49) have increased by 79% over the past three decades, with the fastest increases found among nasopharyngeal (windpipe) and prostate cancers. Breast cancer accounted for the largest number of the increased cases.
Consistent with most research in the area, the study identified diet, alcohol consumption, tobacco use, physical inactivity, and excess body fat as the leading risk factors for early-onset cancer diagnoses.
Importantly, other experts point out the 79% increase refers to the total number of cases, rather than rates of cancer. More work is needed to determine how exactly to interpret the data, since the world’s population increased by nearly 50% over the study period and other work has shown more people diagnosed with cancer under 50 are surviving their cancers.
Unconditional Cash Transfers Can Reduce Homelessness and Save Taxpayer Money
A new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada ran a pilot project giving 50 homeless Canadians an unconditional, one-time cash transfer of $7,500 Canadian dollars (around $5,600 USD), finding the cash transfers reduced homelessness, increased savings, and improved food security.
The study debunks popular stereotypes that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to spend cash on so-called “temptation goods,” like tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, finding the study participants were far more likely to spend the cash on food, housing, transit, and clothing.
From a cost-benefit perspective, the study also found the C$7,500 transfer led to a total savings of C$8,172 per person per year by reducing reliance on the public shelter system, resulting in a net savings of $672 per person per year for Canadian taxpayers.
Opposites Don’t Actually Attract
A new study by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder found romantic partners are more likely than not to share common personality traits, like political beliefs and substance use, bucking the age-old adage that “opposites attract.”
The researchers performed a meta-analysis of prior literature and their own original data analysis, examining some 130 personality traits across millions of couples over more than a century. Same-sex couples weren’t included in this analysis as the authors are exploring them separately.
The analysis found between 82% and 89% of traits analyzed between partners were more likely than not to be similar, with particularly high relationship correlation for traits like political and religious attitudes, education, and substance use. Individuals tended to partner with people different from themselves for only 3% of the studied traits.
76% - The percentage of generals and admirals in the U.S. Department of Defense that will be affected by Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (AL) ongoing blockade of military promotions, according to estimates from the Pentagon. Tuberville has single-handedly blocked military promotions since February to protest a Defense Department policy reimbursing servicemembers for abortions. In an op-ed published Monday in The Washington Post, the Secretaries of the Navy, Air Force, and Army urged Tuberville to end the blockade, describing his one-man political show as “dangerous.”
648% - The increase in the share of no-cutlery orders on Eleme (China’s second-largest food-delivery platform) after users were given “green nudges” against using plastic cutlery, like changing default settings to “no cutlery” and awarding green points as rewards for not choosing cutlery, according to a new study by an international team of researchers. The researchers estimate green nudges could eliminate 3.26 million metric tons of plastic waste and save 5.44 million trees (from wooden chopstick use) each year, if applied to all of China.
650+ - The number of academics that signed an open letter calling on British universities to commit to 100% plant-based meals on campuses in an effort to combat climate change. The letter was organized by the student-led Planet-Based Universities campaign and likens the move to meat-free meals to campus divestments in fossil fuels, which around 100 U.K. universities have already committed to doing. The letter doesn’t call for completely vegan universities, saying students and staff can still bring food to campus.
78 million miles - How close the newly discovered Comet Nishimura will get to Earth on September 12, according to The Planetary Society. The comet will be visible to people in the Northern Hemisphere as it flies through our cosmic neighborhood for the first time in 400 years. Stargazers should look toward the northeastern horizon about 1.5 hours before dawn for a green body with a long white tail.
Long Video. Learn how drones, satellites, and algorithms are changing the future of war. (17 min)
Short Video. Can tiny seed robots reforest the entire planet? (5 min)
Fun Video. Why is Silicon Valley located where it is? (9 min)
Good Read. Masculinity influencers promise to help boys and young men, but make them miserable instead. (4,364 words; 22 min)
Neat List. Forbes released its annual list of America’s Top Colleges.
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Written by Ryan Wittler