First cultivated in South America about 7,000 years ago, the potato is now grown on every continent but Antarctica.
But the tuberous plants are subject to a range of diseases that attack both above and below ground. The most notorious is the so-called "late blight" that targets potato foliage. It was responsible for the legendary potato famine of the 1840s that killed about 1 million people in Ireland and caused a mass emigration.
"Late blight" still causes billions of damage annually to potatoes and other crops, but a major breakthrough announced this week should speed development of new disease-resistant varieties.
An international team of scientists from 14 different countries, has successfully mapped the genetic code of one of the worlds most important vegetables, the potato. Researchers believe access to the "genetic blueprint" of how a potato grows will lead to major breakthroughs in their ability to develop new varieties of spuds that will be resistant to viral, fungal and bacterial disease.
Potatoes are the world's fourth largest food crop behind corn, rice and wheat. Globally farmers produced about 309 million tons of potatoes in 2007. The average American consumes about 120 pounds of potatoes annually.
Currently, it takes 10-12 years to develop a new variety of potato. By unlocking the genetic code, scientists believe they will be able to reduce the amount of time and costs that it takes to breed new varieties of potatoes.
Formed in 2006, The Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium has now mapped 95% of the genes in potatoes, thanks to a computer program developed by the Beijing Genomics Institute.