[Science news] - Scientists fight to save the sweet potato’s identity
In a new paper, published in the journal Taxon, 40 scientists who specialise in sweet potato have collaborated to preserve the scientific name of the crop – Ipomoea batatas.
The sweet potato is part of a large group of 900 species in the genus Ipomoea, which also includes the ornamental and weedy morning glory flowers. These related species which constitute the crop’s wild cousins, are crucial for understanding important survival traits of sweet potato and for identifying potential new crops that could be more suited to a changing climate.
Since the 1970s, the species that is used to define the genus Ipomoea (called the ‘type species’) has been one very distantly related to the sweet potato. When new DNA-based advances in plant classification showed the need to split the genus into several groups, the threat to consequently rename the sweet potato raised serious concerns for the agricultural sector, which relies on hundreds of thousands of sweet potato and morning glory samples worldwide for crop breeding and improvement.
A change in the scientific name of sweet potato, would result in numerous updates in legislation and health and safety guidelines as well as administrative, packaging and marketing updates for companies that directly commercialize these species, or any of its by-products. All of this would cost a huge amount of money and cause disruption to the food industry.
A well-known example of such negative impact is the change in the scientific name of tomato which has recently caused frustration in crop science and industry, who had to meet unexpected costs and bureaucracy to accommodate the change.
In the study, the scientists Dr Lauren Eserman (Atlanta Botanical Garden), Dr Ana Rita Simões (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) and Dr Marc Sosef of Meise Botanic Garden brought together a network of sweet potato experts to find a solution. They propose to conserve a different ‘type species’ for Ipomoea, selecting a close relative of sweet potato which would secure the crop’s name, as well as most of the ornamental species, while allowing possible renaming of some groups of species that are not as closely related.