Tag Archives: potato

A better potato: researchers sequence the tuber’s entire genome for the first time ever

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research have set the groundwork for supercharging the potato, by mapping out the tuber’s complete genome.

Image credits James Hills.

Fried, mashed, or thrown in a stew, the humble potato has a special place in our hearts and our plates that nothing else seems to be able to fill. Researchers seem to love this tasty tuber as well, and have put significant effort into decoding its genetic secrets. This impressive work will allow us to create better varieties of potato much faster than traditional breeding methods allow for, with implications for the quality of our meals, the enjoyment we derive from it, and global food security.

Super Tuber

“The potato is becoming more and more integral to diets worldwide including even Asian countries like China where rice is the traditional staple food. Building on this work, we can now implement genome-assisted breeding of new potato varieties that will be more productive and also resistant to climate change — this could have a huge impact on delivering food security in the decades to come.”

The potato has not changed very much in the last 100 years or so. The overwhelming majority of varieties that are available in shops today are the same ones that were put to market over the last century and before. While these traditional cultivars are very popular, they do underline that there is a lack of variety of potatoes being grown, cooked, and enjoyed around the world. Thus, it stands to reason that improvements can be made to the baseline potato in order to make it more palatable, more resilient, or more abundant.

That’s what the team at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research hopes to achieve with the full sequencing of the plant’s genome. The work, led by geneticist Korbinian Schneeberger, represents the first full assembly of the potato genome in history, allowing for researchers to work with a much better view of the plant’s genetic intricacies, and thus much more accuracy when trying to breed new varieties of the plant.

Low genetic diversity within a species — and the potato is a good example of one such species — means that it can have difficulties thriving in certain contexts, and leaves it vulnerable to disease. The near-extinction of the Gros Michel banana due to the Panama disease is a great example of such a genetic vulnerability at work. In the case of the potato, the Irish famine of the 1840s stands testament to how completely potato crops can be wiped out by pathogens. During this tragic event, Europeans were growing a single variety of potatoes, which was vulnerable to blight; as such, potato crops failed across the continent.

The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s saw a great diversification of crop varieties in staples like rice or wheat, but not potatoes. Efforts to breed new varieties with higher yields or more disease resistance have, so far, remained largely unsuccessful.

Potatoes, the team explains, inherit two copies of each chromosome from every parent — unlike humans, who inherit one copy of every chromosome from their parents. This makes them a species with four copies of each chromosome, a ‘tetraploid’, making them exceedingly difficult and slow to be coaxed into generating new varieties with desirable combinations of traits.

The same tetraploid structure also makes it technically difficult to reconstruct the potato’s genome.

To work around this issue, the team sequenced the DNA of potatoes working not with mature plants, but with large numbers of individual pollen cells. These contain only two copies of each parent chromosome, which made it easier for the team to use established genetic methods to reconstruct the plant’s genome.

The results should give scientists and plant breeders a powerful new tool with which to identify desirable gene variants in the potato and work to establish new varieties that contain them. Essentially, it gives them a baseline against which they can reliably compare individual plants and establish exactly where their desirable properties originate — and then work to reproduce them.

The paper “Chromosome-scale and haplotype-resolved genome assembly of a tetraploid potato cultivar” has been published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Mashed potatoes are an ideal fuel for exercising, new study reports

The secret to athletic success might lie in the humble potato.

Image via Pixabay.

New research from the University of Illinois found that potato puree is just as effective as commercial carbohydrate gel in maintaining blood sugar and performance levels in trained athletes. The trial focused on prolonged exercise, one of the most demanding types of physical activity.

Boil’em, mash’em, stick’em in a stew!

“Research has shown that ingesting concentrated carbohydrate gels during prolonged exercise promotes carbohydrate availability during exercise and improves exercise performance,” said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Nicholas Burd, who led the research.

“Our study aim was to expand and diversify race-fueling options for athletes and offset flavor fatigue.”

Potatoes are a much more cost-effective alternative to carbohydrate gels, the team explains. Furthermore, these gels tend to be very sweet and puree would offer a savory alternative. All this sounds excellent in theory, but nobody knew how well the taters actually performed — so the team set out to see how the two compare in practice.

The team worked with 12 participants who were healthy and devoted to their sport, averaging 165 miles (267 kilometers) per week on their bicycles. The researchers wanted their participants to be representative of athletes; so all the participants have been cycling for years and had to pass a test to qualify for the trials (a 120-minute cycling challenge followed by a time trial).

The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group only consumed water during the experiment (control group), the second was given a commercially available carbohydrate gel, and the third an equivalent amount of carbohydrates from potatoes. The team standardized what the participants ate for 24 hours before the experiment to limit outside influences.

Throughout the exercise, the participants’ blood glucose, core body temperature, exercise intensity, gastric emptying, and gastrointestinal symptoms were recorded. The researchers also measured concentrations of lactate, a metabolic marker of intense exercise, in their blood.

“We found no differences between the performance of cyclists who got their carbohydrates by ingesting potatoes or gels at recommended amounts of about 60 grams per hour during the experiments,” Burd said. “Both groups saw a significant boost in performance that those consuming only water did not achieve.”

Both carbohydrate groups showed almost the same increase in plasma glucose levels and heart rates, different from the water-only group. They also had better results on the trials.

One difference between the two groups, however, is that those who ate potatoes reported significantly more gastrointestinal (GI) bloating, pain, and flatulence than the other groups. The authors note that they had to eat a larger volume of potatoes to match the glucose content of the gels, which produced these results.

“Nevertheless, average GI symptoms were lower than previous studies, indicating that both (carbohydrate) conditions were well-tolerated by the majority of the study’s cyclists,” the researchers wrote.

“All in all, our study is a proof-of-concept showing that athletes may use whole-food sources of carbohydrates as an alternative to commercial products to diversify race-fueling menus,” Burd said.

The paper “Potato ingestion is as effective as carbohydrate gels to support prolonged cycling performance” has been published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Golden potatoes, last two on the right, are far richer in vitamins A and E. The new crop might one day fight off malnutrition in developing countries. Credit: Mark Failla.

New ‘Golden’ Potato packed with Vitamin A and E could fight malnutrition in developing nations

Scientists have genetically engineered a strain of yellow-orange potato that contains copious amounts of vitamin A and vitamin E. The so-called ‘golden’ potato is intended to cover the nutritional needs of people living in developing countries.

Golden potatoes, last two on the right, are far richer in vitamins A and E. The new crop might one day fight off malnutrition in developing countries. Credit: Mark Failla.

Golden potatoes, last two on the right, are far richer in vitamins A and E.
The new crop might one day fight off malnutrition in developing countries. Credit: Mark Failla.

A single serving of golden potato (150 grams) provides 42% of a child’s recommended daily intake of vitamin A and 34% of the recommended intake of vitamin E. The same serving provides 15% of the recommended vitamin A and 17% of recommended vitamin E for women of reproductive age, scientists report in the journal PLOS ONE.

It is estimated that at least 3.1 million children die each year and 161 million have stunted growth due to malnutrition. While it’s true food scarcity is a problem, even in situations where food is plentiful, it often lacks the necessary vitamins and minerals people need to live a healthy life. Deficiencies in iron, iodine, zinc, folic acid, and vitamin A are among the most common, with almost half the world’s population suffering from one or more deficiencies

After rice, wheat, and corn, the potato is the fourth most popular food crop in the world. Peru, the ancient land of the Incas, is where the first domesticated potatoes were grown about 7,000 years ago. Today, in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador alone, farmers grow some 4,000 varieties of potato, some of which can sprout in surprisingly barren conditions. In fact, scientists are experimenting with farming potatoes in Mars-like conditions, just like in The Martian. Among the ages, its resilience and high nutritional value have made the potato into a key staple crop.

There are multiple ways to obtain necessary micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Micronutrients can be obtained through a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables or through supplements. Staple food fortification adds micronutrients to commonly eaten foods. Biofortified crops are bred or engineered to produce micronutrients. Credit: Harvard University.

There are multiple ways to obtain necessary micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Micronutrients can be obtained through a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables or through supplements. Staple food fortification adds micronutrients to commonly eaten foods. Biofortified crops are bred or engineered to produce micronutrients. Credit: Harvard University.

In many developing nations, people’s diets are comprised of food deficient in essential vitamins. Potatoes are particularly popular in Asian, African, and South American countries, where there is also the highest incidence of vitamin A and vitamin E deficiencies. Vitamin A is vital for a healthy immune system, vision, growth, and reproductive health. Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness in children. Vitamin E protects the body from damage to the nerves, muscles, vision, or the immune system.

A potato serving already contains half your daily value of vitamin C and is also rich in vitamin B6. Scientists at Ohio State University and the Italian National Agency for New Technologies just made a huge upgrade. Using metabolic engineering — the manipulation of plant genes in the lab — the international team of researchers added carotenoids in the tuber, which are essential nutrients for many animals and humans. The fat-soluble pigments are also the ones that provide the yellow, red, and orange colors to fruits and vegetables, hence the ‘golden’ potato.

This golden potato joins the ranks of other GMO vitamin-enhancing crops such as Golden Rice, one of the first big steps forward in fighting vitamin-A deficiency,

“More than 800,000 people depend on the potato as their main source of energy, and many of these individuals are not consuming adequate amounts of these vital nutrients,” explained senior study investigator Mark Failla, Ph.D., professor emeritus of human nutrition at Ohio State. “These golden tubers have far more vitamin A and vitamin E than white potatoes, and that could make a significant difference in certain populations where deficiencies—and related diseases—are common.”

The golden potato is, for the time being, not commercially available. Researchers who continue to experiment on the GMO crop, looking for new strategies that may further boost nutritional value, based on the different requirements countries around the world have. It might take many years before a golden potato reaches people’s plates if the same negative public reactions befell this GMO crop as was the case with Golden Rice. 

“[There’s a] hidden hunger—deficiencies in micronutrients—has been a problem for decades in many developing countries because staple food crops were bred for high yield and pest resistance rather than nutritional quality. This golden potato would be a way to provide a much more nutritious food that people are eating many times a week, or even several times a day,” Failla said.

Peruvian scientist David Ramirez points to a potato plant in a simulator akin to a Mars’ conditions, in Lima Peru.

From fiction to reality: scientists grow potatoes in Mars-like conditions

 Peruvian scientist David Ramirez points to a potato plant in a simulator akin to a Mars’ conditions, in Lima Peru.

Peruvian scientist David Ramirez points to a potato plant in a simulator akin to a Mars’ conditions, in Lima Peru.

Not long after Matt Damon played a stranded botanist on Mars who had to grow his own potatoes there to avoid starvation, scientists from the International Potato Center (IPC) in Lima, Peru, began an ambitious project to grow potatoes in Mars-like conditions. A year later, some of the first results are in and they’re very promising. By all accounts, it seems the potato is on its way to becoming the first interplanetary crop.

“Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment,” says Julia Valdivia-Silva, a researcher working on the project. “If the crops can tolerate the extreme conditions that we are exposing then to in our CubeSat, they have a good chance to grow on Mars. We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best.”

Peru, the ancient land of the Incas, is where the first domesticated potatoes were grown about 7,000 years ago. Today, in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador alone, some 4,000 varieties of potato are grown, some of which can sprout even in the most barren conditions. Among the ages, its resilience and high nutritional value have made the potato into a key staple crop. Today, the potato is one of the most favored foods globally, along with wheat and rice.

It seems fitting that the first experiments meant to assess whether a potato can grow on Mars were held in Lima, Peru’s capital. Some 100 varieties were tested by the IPC researchers, who were joined by colleagues from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Each variety was grown inside a Mars-in-a-box test chamber called a CubeSat, which is typically a tiny satellite used in space research but this time just the hermetically shut casing was used.

Inside the CubeSat, Mars-like conditions were simulated like below-zero temperatures, high carbon monoxide concentrations, low air pressure found at 6,000 meters (19,700 feet) altitude. Additionally, a system of lights imitated the Martian day and night. As for the soil, the researchers looked for something with high salinity that would mirror the barren Martian ground as closely as possible. They didn’t have to look too far for it. Along Peru’s southern coast, at Pampas de la Joya, there is less than a millimeter of rain a year and the parched ground here proved fitting.

Of the 100 varieties planted by the researchers, 40 are native to the Andes Mountains, the birthplace of the potato, while the other 60 or so were improved varieties that can better cope in low-water conditions or have heightened immunity against viruses. Just four varieties managed to sprout from the soil. A variety called “Unique” seems to be the clear winner. You can even see some of these varieties as they grow in this live feed provided by NASA.

“It’s a ‘super potato’ that resists very high carbon dioxide conditions and temperatures that get to freezing,” the IPC researchers said in a statement.

It’s important to note that all of these tests didn’t simulate conditions on Mars in the open. Given the planet’s low-pressure, freezing temperature and lack of oxygen, it would be likely impossible for any plant to survive but inside a greenhouse-type environment is another thing, and the present research clearly shows it’s possible. That was the point, after all.

Some day, when mankind is ready to permanently colonize Mars, it’s likely that food crops would be deployed in advance, on a separate spacecraft. Once in the Martian orbit, automated systems, robots and artificial intelligence can deploy a habitat for the manned crew but also a greenhouse. By the time the first long-term human expedition reaches the site on Mars, some of the crops should have already been harvested. For this to work, though, you need to establish the upper and lower limits of survivability for your crops, which is why new experiments will see even higher carbon dioxide concentrations to more closely imitate the Martian atmosphere.

Previously, scientists have grown other crops as well in Martian soil, albeit not in Mars-like atmospheric conditions. These include tomatoes, peas, rye, garden rocket, radish and garden cress. Another study found some of these foods were actually healthier than their Earth-grown counterparts.

Growing super potatoes in Mars-like conditions can help food security here on Earth, as well. The lessons learned and the technology developed from these experiments could push the potato from its current status of fifth most important crop grown worldwide (after wheat, corn, rice and sugarcane) to the #1 slot. In the face of ever uncertain conditions due to climate change, knowing we always have a crop or two to point at that can grow even on Mars is reassuring on so many levels.

“The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working,” IPC researchers said.

UK Food agency starts campaign against potatoes which pose cancer risk

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), the rough equivalent of the FDA in the US, has started a campaign warning of the cancer risk associated with cooked potatoes and other starchy foods.

The problem

Bad, bad potatoes! Image in Public Domain.

Put simply, the problem is acrylamide. Acrylamide is a chemical substance formed through a Maillard reaction between amino acids and sugars. It typically results when foods with high starch content such as potatoes, root vegetables, or bread are cooked at high temperatures (over 120°C) in a process of frying, roasting, or baking. It’s not something added into foods, but something that emerges as a result of a chemical reaction, from cooking.

High levels of acrylamide are found in starchy foods, like potatoes and bread, when cooked at high temperatures, but the chemical can also be found in breakfast cereals, biscuit, and coffee. Basically, if you cook potatoes at lower temperatures, the acrylamide level is not so high. As a rule of thumb, you should aim for a golden yellow colour or lighter when cooking starchy foods like potatoes, root vegetables and bread. Brown potatoes, for instance, have more acrylamide — and that’s bad.

The problem with acrylamide is that our bodies synthesize it into another compound, glycidamide, which can bind to our DNA and cause mutations, leading to cancers. Animal tests clearly show this happening and although this hasn’t been clearly translated to humans, there is a good cause for concern.

“Although evidence from animal studies has shown that acrylamide in food could be linked to cancer, this link isn’t clear and consistent in humans,” says Emma Shields, at charity Cancer Research UK.

While there are other, much more significant factors connected to cancer (such as smoking and a sedentary lifestyle), the concerns that acrylamide can be harmful to us seem valid.

If you really must eat french fries, make sure they’re yellow — not brown. Image credits: VirginiaG

What this means

Studies have shown that high levels of acrylamide can cause neurological damage and cancer. Across the pond, the US Environmental Protection Agency has said acrylamide is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation, says it is a “probable human carcinogen”. Researchers say that the off meal shouldn’t worry anyone — it’s more a lifestyle thing that can be dangerous. Basically, if you eat potatoes or toast every day, you might want to start considering other meal options.

Steve Wearne, director of policy at the FSA, says manufacturers are already taking steps following their campaign, and consumers should too.

“We are not saying people should worry about the occasional meal… this is about managing risk over a lifetime. Anything you can do to reduce your exposure will reduce your lifetime risk. People might, for example, think ‘I like my roast potatoes crispy’, but they will just decide to have them less often.”

What you can do

The first thing you can do is “go for gold” — don’t cook potatoes at high temperatures and keep them from browning. When it comes to buying food, you can ask for that at a restaurant, or for prepackaged chips you can… just not eat chips, preferably. If you must eat chips, make sure it’s not too often — there’s no clear indication here, but a few times a month should be fine. No one is expecting a radical diet shift.

The next thing contains storage. Storing raw potatoes in the fridge may lead to the formation of more free sugars in the potatoes (a process sometimes referred to as ‘cold sweetening’) and this, in turn, leads to the formation of more acrylamide.

Lastly, eating a varied diet helps. Don’t overly rely on potatoes (or any vegetable or cereal for that matter) and try to diversity your meals whenever possible. This will definitely help reduce your risk of cancer, and not only from acrylamide.

Meet Chuño, a space worthy food that the Incas made eight centuries ago

The Inca empire once spanned the length of the Andes, and was the largest single country in pre-Columbian America. This is even more impressive when you consider just how incredibly harsh the Andes can be — freezing by night, rugged, dry, and windy all the time. In a time where any type of information or goods had to be transported by human or animal effort, maintaining an empire seems almost impossible.

But the Inca did it. The unique requirements of the Andes led them to develop staple food that rivals modern astronauts’ food in shelf-life, nourishment, and ease of transport to power their way to an empire. That food is called Chuño, and is still being made the same way it has been eight centuries ago — by leaving potatoes out for a few nights.

Black and white Chuño.
Image via yonosoycocinero

Do you want some fries with that?

Chuño is basically freeze-dried potatoes, which is remarkable as they were developed by a culture that had almost zero food-processing technology. What they did have though was a harsh, unforgiving climate, which they put to good use. Altiplano villagers, living in the high plateaus of Bolivia and Peru, make chuño by using the warm days and freezing nights of June to repeatedly freeze and thaw the potatoes, then crushing them underfoot to remove the tubers’ skin and push out the liquids.

For such a simple production process, the result is incredible — Chuño is really filling and it can be stored and eaten for a decade after being prepared with the simplest of storing methods. There’s actually two varieties of the food — black chuño is made with bitter potatoes left to freeze overnight then crushed to remove the liquids inside, until it’s completely dehydrated. White chuño is made by soaking potatoes in the cold rivers and streams of the area, then sun-drying them.

“It was the food that sustained Inca armies,” said Charles C. Mann, an author who has written extensively on the Americas before the European conquest.

The food is little-known outside of the Andes, and newcomers to the region take a little bit of getting used to it. Some have said that it tastes nothing like a potato should, but comes really close to the taste of chalk. Or Styrofoam. Its smell has also been compared to dirty socks. Yum!

So it’s a bit of an acquired taste. Locals still love chuño, though. All you need to do before eating chuño is to rehydrate the potato, but locals cook them into several tasty dishes, usually serving it with an Andean chili called ají. Or they grind them into a flour which they use to thicken soups and stews.

But the most useful thing about chuño is its long shelf life. When the going gets tough and there’s no money for canned foods, or no llamas for meat, and there’s a bad harvest, chuño comes in and saves the day.

“This ability to store food is important in a region where periodic droughts can destroy a year’s crop,” said Clare A. Sammells, an anthropologist who wrote an ode to the often-shunned freeze-dried staple. “Chuño provides the food needed to survive.”

For me, chuño is incredible because it shows just how resourceful humans can be. The Andean people took a look around and said “Ok, what do we have? Deadly cold nights, loads of dust and these here tubers.” Then they used them to make food worthy of space flight. Sock-smelling pieces of chalk-like space food, but no less impressive.

Canadian Food Agency approves the sale of Simplot’s Innate potato in Canada

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CIFA) and Health Canada have approved Simplot’s genetically engineered Innate potato for sale throughout the country. The first generation of Innate potatoes have passed food safety assessments, and are considered as just as safe and healthy as unaltered spuds.

The Innate potato has been approved for sale in Canada.
Image credits go to Wikimedia user McKay Savage

The Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Company can start selling their Gen.1 Innate potatoes in Canada starting this year, CIFA and Health Canada have decided in two letters addressed to the company on March 18. The tatters already received regulatory approvals in the U.S. last year and are sold under the White Russet brand.

Innate potatoes have the same nutritional composition as the regular variety, with the company citing reduced browning or bruising of their product compared to unaltered tubers, as well as lower levels of carcinogens when cooked.

“Our potato cuts acrylamide up to 62 percent and a future generation will take up to 90 percent, making it virtually negligible, which is a really big deal in the potato world,” says Director Doug Cole, Marketing and Communications, Simplot.

Simplot was able to reduce bruising and browning of their potatoes by up to 44% by grafting genes from more resistant species, such as Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic variety into their genetic make-up. Their potatoes also produce less polyphenol oxidase, which leaks from damaged plastids in bruised or cut potatoes, causing darkening and in black spot.

This doesn’t seem like a big improvement until you consider how much food we usually throw out due to these effects.

“Consumers throw away about 30 percent of their potatoes either due to bruising or sprouting, so we’ve solved the bruising problem,” says Cole.

This genetic construct also lowers the expression of native genes that govern the production of asparagine and starch to reduce sugar conversion. Lower levels of these substances limit the potential for acrylamide formation when the potatoes are cooked at temperatures higher than 120 degrees Celsius (248 degrees Fahrenheit) — such as in frying, baking or broiling. Based on studies on rats, the U.S. National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have identified acrylamide as a probable human carcinogen — although other studies found differences in acrylamide absorption speed between humans and rats.

They’re also easier to farm, and less wasteful. Simplot stated that that if all Canadian fresh Russet potato crops had the traits of Innate, we could reduce waste at the field, storage, packing, retail and food-service levels by some 400 million kilograms. Carbon dioxide emissions would be cut by 30 million kilograms (66.1 million pounds), water usage reduce by 5.6 billion liters, and 15,000 fewer pesticide hectare-applications would be needed, the company said.

This is bound to be a controversial decision. But all these traits led Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada, to believe that Innate will attract a lot of commercial interests in the future, as it makes growing, cooking and storing much easier. Farmers are already supportive of CIFA’s decision, welcoming it as a step forward.

“This is the reality: we need to use these technologies to help feed the world in a better way with less waste and less risk of carcinogenic effects,” Ontario potato producer Peter VanderZaag said.

Health Canada doesn’t require for Innate potatoes to be labeled as “genetically engineered”. In the U.S., food packaging has to include details about the product’s website and a QR code for consumer information.



According to Simplot

Chimps cook if given the chance, study shows

Chimps not only have the brain power to understand the concept of cooked food, but they are willing to delay eating raw food if they know it can be cooked. This highlights impressive cognitive abilities, such as the foresight and patience to resist their urge of eating food..

Image via PBS.


Don’t expect the primates to start competing against Gordon Ramsay, but they just love roasted potatoes. Scientists noticed that chimps would give up a raw slice of sweet potato in the hand for the prospect of a cooked slice of sweet potato a bit later. That kind of self control came as a surprise initially.

“Many primate species, including chimpanzees, have difficulty giving up food already in their possession and show limitations in their self-control when faced with food,” the Harvard researchers who conducted the study note.

Sure, chimps lack the technical abilities to cook, but if they are given the necessary tools (an oven) they “might be quite able to manipulate (it) to cook,” said developmental psychologist Felix Warneken of Harvard University, who conducted the study with Alexandra Rosati. An experiment showed that when given a functional oven and a non-functioning oven, chimps always placed the potatoes in the functioning one – in other words, they preferred cooked potatoes. It was already known that chimps prefer cooked food, so researchers took things one step further: they gave the chimps raw potatoes; before they were shown the concept of cooking, they simply took the potato and ate it, but once they had been introduced to cooking, they chose not to eat it wait for it to be cooked.

“The first time one of the chimps did this, I was just amazed,” study co-author Alexandra Rosati who is moving to Yale University said. “I really had not anticipated it. When one of them did it, we thought maybe this one chimp is just a genius, but eventually about half of them did it,” Rosati pointed out.

Aside for the chimps’ abilities, this also suggests that cooking emerged early in human evolution. The earliest archaeological evidence of cooking is about 1 million years old, but in light of this discovery, it may be that cooking emerged when humans had the mental abilities of today’s chimps, about 2 million years.

“What is particularly interesting about cooking is it’s something we all do, but it involves a number of capacities that, even without the context of cooking, are thought to be uniquely human. That is why we wanted to study this in chimpanzees,” explained Felix Warneken from Harvard University.

The research was inspired by the work of Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard and several colleagues about 15 years ago in an article in Current Anthropology. Wrangham went on to describe his findings in a book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.” He too argued that cooking evolved around 2 million years ago.

As for the chimps, Warneken believes that they would be able to operate a simple oven, and they have the causal understanding.