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Fine-tuning potatoes

It may be too early to call them super spuds, but the groundwork has been laid and the process is under way to develop potato varieties with desirable agronomic, processing and nutritional traits — all possible with ongoing genetic research.

Two years ago the potato genome was sequenced. Knowing the complete DNA sequence of the potato, in and of itself, is a milestone. But its true value is revealed when scientists use that information to identify genetic markers that control desirable, as well as undesirable, functions.

By identifying those genes, researchers strive to design tasty tubers that travel and process well. They’re working to incorporate important traits, such as disease resistance, quality, yield and drought tolerance, as well as nutritional attributes, such as starch and sugar quality, protein, and vitamin content.

Key Points

• Two years ago international scientists mapped potato genome.

• Researchers try to identify genetic markers for desirable functions.

• With its own equipment, MSU is conducting potato genome mapping.

We can identify thousands of genetic markers in a matter of days — unimaginable five years ago,” says Dave Douches, Michigan State University crop and soil sciences professor.

Douches heads a four-year, $5.4 million USDA grant research project to improve quality, yield, drought tolerance and disease resistance of potatoes and tomatoes. Known as the SolCAP project, the research marries emerging DNA sequence knowledge with basic research data.

Once established, genetic markers are linked with specific traits. “Through the genome sequencing, we can identify molecular markers breeders can use to increase efficiency in both time and cost,” he says. “It’s genetic engineering. It’s very precise, and we are moving forward with much more confidence than before.”

The Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium, an international team of 39 scientists, began work on the potato genome project in 2006. Robin Buell, a plant biologist at Michigan State University, was one of three co-leaders of the project. MSU’s AgBioResearch facility is where the sequencing is taking place, using single nucleotide polymorphisms genotyping. AgBioResearch invested $300,000 to buy the lab equipment.

Buell’s potato genome sequencing research is funded by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute and the University of Wisconsin. The consortium’s work turned up more than 39,000 genes in the potato.


Potato couture: MSU potato breeders Dave Douches (left) and Joe Coombs use the potato genome map to identify desirable traits to create a more ideal potato variety.

This article published in the April, 2012 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.