The Potato That Killed!

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They thought they had created the perfect potato – but they were wrong. In a dramatic tale of science gone wrong, a killer potato rises from a secret breeding program, intent on killing those who wronged it. Learn about... the Lenape potato!

All right, perhaps the potato wasn't invested with a sense of revenge. After all, it was only going about its business, and defending itself against those who would destroy it. Mainly insects. All potatoes, and other plants in the same family, like tomatoes, contain different kinds of glycoalkaloids. These give them a distinctive flavor that humans sometimes enjoy, but that insects hate.

One of these glycoalkaloids is solanine. Solanine generally collects in the stems, leaves, and eyes of the potato. A little does no harm, but too much cause cramps, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea. A very great deal, well over 100 miligrams, can cause death. Solanine develops as the potato ages. It's usually stimulated by an exposure to light, which is why potatoes are stored in dark, out of the way places, despite their extreme attractiveness. Since most potatoes only have about 8 to 12 miligrams of solanine per spud, they can't hurt anyone. People only get into trouble when they boil potato leaves for tea.


Or when they eat the Lenape potato. In the 1960s, when fries and potato chips were gaining popularity as snacks, farmers wanted to breed the perfect potato. The potato had a delicious starchiness that wasn't the best for straight eating, but turned it an amazing golden brown all over when fried. It was delicious and perfectly-textured, and it was launched, commercially, in 1968. And people started getting sick. People occasionally pigged out on this potato, which had over three times as much solanine in it as regular potatoes. And people began getting sick – a few even having convulsions.

The potato was eventually yanked from the market, and a similar one in Sweden was also withdrawn. I'd like to try a couple of chips made from the famous Lenape potato someday, but no more than a couple. Conventional breeding had produced the perfect potato, but it had one fatal flaw. Literally.


Top Image: Robin.

[Via Glycoalkaloid in Foods, Unintended Effects of Conventional Plant Breeding]