Most viewed stories, News April 2024, North America, Research, Seed

Kayla Spawton spearheads groundbreaking work at U of I’s state-of-the-art seed potato facility

As the new director of University of Idaho’s Seed Potato Germplasm Program, Kayla Spawton oversees a modern, new facility and holds a position that is essential to one of the state’s largest and most celebrated industries.

Sixty percent of all potatoes consumed in the U.S. and 90% of Idaho potatoes can be traced back to the Moscow laboratory, which produces plantlets and mini-tubers used in the initial phase of seed potato production. Potatoes remain Idaho’s largest cash crop, generating $1.3 billion in revenue during 2023, U of I agricultural economists estimated.

“That’s why I wanted to get into applied research — to be a part of a team that’s making a difference in helping out farmers and getting food to folks,” Spawton said.

U of I moved seed potato germplasm production into its current state-of-the-art laboratory in the spring of 2022. Spawton assumed the director’s position in late February 2024. The program’s part-time lab manager, Shannon Kuhl, ran the new facility on an acting basis for the year and half prior to Spawton’s hiring. The staff also includes a part-time greenhouse manager and a team of undergraduate workers who help with tissue culturing and greenhouse work.

From California Roots to Global Impact: Dr. Kayla Spawton’s Diverse Agricultural Journey

Spawton was raised in California and earned a bachelor’s degree in ecology, evolution and biodiversity from University of California-Davis in 2014, minoring in fungal biology and ecology. She then worked for a few years as a microbiology research assistant with an agriculture biotech startup company, evaluating the ability of microbes to increase yields and stress tolerance of major crops. She returned to UC Davis to manage a project to monitor streams for the causal agent of sudden oak death, which is a disease affecting native California coastal forests and nurseries.

Kayla Spawton. Courtesy Kayla Spawton

In 2023, she earned a doctorate in plant pathology from Washington State University, researching a fungal disease affecting spinach grown for seed, as well as fresh market and processing spinach.

“My Ph.D. was very focused on working with growers and seed companies,” Spawton said. “I really enjoy working closely with those who have other roles in agriculture.”

While Spawton’s background is in true seed, potato seed is propagated vegetatively — asexually producing clones by raising whole plants from stem cuttings or tubers. The lab produces both disease-free plant cuttings, which can be grown into a potato plant, and tiny potatoes known as mini-tubers. These plantlets and mini-tubers are shipped to early generation seed producers throughout the world.

A unique service to the potato industry in Idaho and further afield

“The program is a unique service to the potato industry in Idaho, but also nationally and internationally,” Spawton said. “For example, we just sent plantlets to Egypt.”

The lab starts with tubers, which are sprouted and established in tissue culture. The shoots are carried through virus cleanup and grown into new plantlets for several generations, until staff can be assured that regulated pathogens have been eliminated. To avoid the possibility of contamination from soil, plantlets are raised in a sugary gelatin-like substance, and mini-tubers are raised in perlite.

The lab stores experimental lines and varieties for the Tri-State Potato Research and Breeding Program, which is a regional collaboration involving U of I, Oregon State University, Washington State University, the potato commissions of the three states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service of Idaho and Washington. They also clean and maintain lines for paying customers.

New research projects in store

Spawton has several research projects in mind for the laboratory. First, her and her team are interested in researching methods to boost the efficiency of the program’s mini-tuber production. Second, the laboratory recently added technology to cryogenically preserve potato plant meristems for greater storage stability and longer shelf life, and the staff will research how to use cryogenics in its process of virus cleanup. Finally, they plan to evaluate methods for storing other crop lines.

“That’s something we’re interested in exploring. We’ll just have to be thoughtful of what we take on,” Spawton said. “I’m lucky to be coming into a facility that’s only a few years old. We have a lot of resources here — a lot of room to expand — which is a very nice situation for the program.”

Media Contact:
Kayla Spawton
Director of Seed Potato Germplasm Program
Cover image: Kayla Spawton. Credit Kayla Spawton

Editor & Publisher: Lukie Pieterse

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