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MSU’s pioneering diploid potato project backs research into new way of breeding potatoes

Roughly ten years ago, Dave Douches, a professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences and director of MSU’s Potato Breeding and Genetics Program, led the Solanaceae Coordinated Agricultural Project (SolCAP). The project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) to advance potato and tomato crops, gave rise to a new potato-breeding venture Douches has been exploring ever since.

Dave Douches, professor in Michigan State University’s Department
of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences and director of MSU’s Potato
Breeding and Genetics Program.

Most potatoes grown in the world are tetraploids, meaning they have four sets of chromosomes. This makes breeding potatoes relatively difficult due to the high level of genes that must be crossed.

During his time as director of SolCAP, Douches recognized the need for finding the genetic material needed to cultivate a diploid potato, one that has just two sets of chromosomes. Both tetraploid and diploid potatoes originated from South America centuries ago, but it ultimately was the tetraploid potato that reached the global market and is what consumers typically buy today.

“It was in that project I realized we needed to think of a new way of breeding the potato at the diploid level and to capture the advantage and simplicity of using diploid genetics,” Douches said.

Diploid breeding allows for genetic advances to happen quickly. At the diploid level, scientists can edit genes with a greater probability of achieving desired traits than they can at the tetraploid level.

To help launch this research, Douches applied for and received Project GREEEN funding in 2018.

Project GREEEN, Michigan’s plant agriculture initiative that’s housed at MSU and includes plant-based commodity groups and businesses, MSU AgBioResearchMSU Extension and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, has been critical in pursuing a diploid potato germplasm — the genetic material of reproductive cells used for breeding, conservation and research.

“Since 2018, Project GREEEN has helped us jumpstart this work,” Douches said. “It’s really been crucial work because we’ve been taking advantage of modern technology and gene editing to impart self-compatibility in diploid potatoes.”

Douches said he and his team are preparing to submit a petition to the USDA that, if granted, would allow the gene-edited potato capable of self-compatibility to become exempt from regulations with minimal restrictions, a similar standard that conventional foods are held to.

Another challenge Project GREEEN has helped Douches overcome in breeding potatoes is developing further resistance to pests, specifically the Colorado potato beetle. Prior to studying potatoes at the diploid level, Douches said there was little progress made in finding the gene that would protect potatoes against the beetle. However, with Project GREEEN funding, he was able to hire a graduate student who discovered the gene.

Source: Michigan State University (MSU). Read the full story and watch videos here
Cover image: Credit MSU

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