Identifying Potatoes with Jadwiga Sliwka

The potato – or Solanum tuberosum – is the fourth-largest crop plant in the world and therefore of great interest to researchers studying economically important food sources.

Scientist with a wild potato specimen

Jadwiga Sliwka with one of her specimens and a Museum book on potatoes.

Jadwiga Sliwka, a postdoctoral researcher from the Plant Breeding and Acclimatisation Institute (IHAR-PIB) in Poland, visited the Museum under the SYNTHESYS Access programme for three weeks in October 2016 for her project “Identity validation of Solanum accessions used as sources of important traits in potato breeding.” We interviewed her to find out more about her work.

What is your research background, and where do you work at the moment?

I work at the Plant Breeding and Acclimatisation Institute (IHAR-PIB) in Poland. I’ve been there for 16 years and did my PhD there joint with the Max Planck Institute in Germany. I started in biology and then moved into agricultural sciences. We study genetic mapping in potatoes.

Whilst mapping important traits like disease resistance, we also searched for sources of beneficial traits amongst wild relatives which can be used to widen and improve the cultivated potato gene pool. We have preserved part of the Vavilov collection – a famous collection from Russia – and found that many of the species names given were out-dated, and some accessions were identified with names that were never published.

What work are you doing at the Natural History Museum?

I brought some dried specimens from Poland to study alongside material at the Natural History Museum. The most useful access has been the type specimens the museum holds, and access to books on the specialist subject area, some of which are yet to be published. I have been able to compare the physical attributes of the dried specimens with the Museum’s type specimens and publications to determine the taxonomy of the samples.

What features do you study when trying to identify which species is which?

We would look at a number of things – for example the flowers, colour, shape, proportions, fruit, leaves and trichomes.

Trichomes – are fine outgrowths that resemble hair and are found on numerous plants, as well as algae and lichens. Although most of us are only familiar with the ‘tuber’ part of the potato plant – that is, the part that we eat – potato plants produce flowers of a variety of colours, as well as small fruits resembling green cherry tomatoes.

What have you found so far?

We have discovered that we are working with much fewer species than we used to think. I brought specimens of 12 species here, but will be going back with only six.

What other research do you do that will complement this project?

I work on an EU funded project co-ordinated in Italy called G2P-SOL that is linking genetic resources and genomes of Solanaceous crops with phenotypes. The project uses Next Generation Sequencing to genotype accessions of crops of vegetables. The linked phenotypes (the physical expressions of the genes) then aid breeders in identifying useful characteristics in their crops.

Solanaceae – are a group of plants better known as nightshades, containing important crops such as tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, as well as potatoes.

How have the Natural History Museum and SYNTHESYS been helpful to your research?

This Museum is the only place in Europe with the type specimens and research that I needed – I would have had to go to the US for similar access. There are monographs of taxonomy of wild potatoes, many of which haven’t been published yet and therefore wouldn’t be accessible otherwise.

Sandy Knapp’s expertise has also been extremely helpful. The project would have been difficult to facilitate without SYNTHESYS due to the cost and the practical arrangements of access.

Sandy Knapp

We also asked Jadwiga’s host, Dr Sandy Knapp – Merit Researcher and Head of Division for Algae, Fungi and Plants – whether Jadwiga’s visit has aided her own research or opened up new avenues for collaboration, to which the answer was a definite “Yes!”

Sandy explained:

…whilst often germplasm collections are well kept, the specimens themselves are not labelled, so if they get mixed up you don’t have a point of reference to go back to. Museums like ours can act as places were ‘vouchers’ can be kept in perpetuity in a new and different way.

Jadwiga has only brought 35 of 100 or so wild relatives, but could apply the same recording techniques to the rest of the specimens back at her home institution – it’s a way of having physical evidence.

Find out more about Jadwiga’s research and work.

SYNTHESYS Access programme

The programme funds researchers from EU member and associate states to undertake short research visits at one of 18 partner institutions, including the Natural History Museum.

So far across the three phases of the SYNTHESYS project, 48,000 researcher days have been funded and have aided in establishing numerous new transnational collaboration links between researchers and their hosts, as well as producing over 4,500 research outputs.

To find out more about the programme, including project highlights from prior users, follow the links below:

Synthesis of systematic resources

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Interview conducted by Katherine Dixey (SYNTHESYS)