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How genetics can solve potato reproduction and pest problems worldwide

A team of American researchers has managed to advance in the creation of new varieties and resistances to solve the cultivation of this nightshade, changing the paradigm used until now.


Potato cropfield.

Potato is a staple food in most cultures worldwide. Originally from South America, Spanish and other European settlers exported it to Europe, where it was considered a botanical rarity, often destined for livestock, but famines contributed to the spread of the potato for European human consumption.

Today, the international trade in potatoes is turbulent, with situations of product shortage, high prices and uncertainty about the results of the next harvests due to the weather conditions derived from climate change. This is due, in part, to the fact that the potato is a relatively difficult crop to grow due to the genetics of the varieties that are marketed worldwide.

Most of the potatoes that can be found in any market in the world today are tetraploid, that is, they have four sets of chromosomes, so a large number of genes must be crossed to achieve their reproduction. However, originally in South America, there were also diploid potatoes, with half the genes necessary to reproduce than those of today. A fact that facilitates its cultivation and that Dave Douches, professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University and director of the MSU Potato Genetics and Improvement Program, decided to explore to improve the current situation of the potato cultivation, as a result of being director of the Solanaceae Coordinated Agricultural Project (SolCAP). "It was in that project that I realized that we needed to think of a new way to improve the potato and capture the advantage and simplicity of using diploid genetics," explains Douches.

And with diploid varieties, genetic advances can occur quickly, since by having a smaller number of genes to combine and control, scientists have a greater chance of achieving potato varieties with the desired characteristics, which is why Douches requested funding to initiate research into the Greeen project, which brings together entities and companies that have contributed to the search for diploid genetic material (germplasm) with which to reproduce, conserve and research this type of potato varieties. "It's been really crucial work, because we've been harnessing modern technology and gene editing to impart self-compatibility in diploid potatoes." Self-compatibility is the process by which a plant can pollinate itself from its own seeds and fruits, a fact that was rare in diploid potatoes before this research occurred, and which is now a viable option, opening up the door to the easy and rapid development of numerous varieties of diploid potatoes. So much so that the team responsible for the research has asked the USDA for exemption from regulations for this type of potato varieties, which are only minimally restricted, like the rest of the crops that are commercialized, so that trade can spread and their consumption.

Furthermore, research with diploid varieties facilitates the creation of resistance against pests, such as the Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata), one of the most destructive pests for the crop and which, for example, created a shortage of potatoes in the Canary Islands last summer, given the plague of potatoes that were imported to the Canary Islands from the United Kingdom, creating a crisis in Canarian gastronomy, with the 'wrinkled potato' being a basic dish for Canarian families. A problem that would disappear with diploid potatoes, since Douches' team discovered the gene that protects the tuber of this beetle with yellow and black stripes. "This is a perfect example of not being able to achieve any progress in insect resistance with polyploid varieties, that is, those that have more than two sets of chromosomes, since they have too complex genetics" - emphasizes Douches -. However, "at the diploid level, we have been able to address this. I hired a great graduate student, Natalie Kaiser, who took on this work. She identified the resistance gene in a germplasm that had been around for 30 years, but because of "While all the previous research carried out on it had been at the polyploid level, no one had been able to make any progress in this regard. Now we are integrating the gene into our diploid germplasm through a simpler reproduction system," highlights the person responsible for the research.

This also implies progress in the application of phytosanitary products, reducing their use and therefore saving costs for farmers, which is a plus when evaluating the commercial viability of these varieties.

Additionally, the Greeen project has helped Douches' research secure larger national grants to continue the development of new diploid varieties and resistances in them, in collaboration with other state universities that provide experimental cultivation fields, achieving the reproduction and improvement of these potatoes at an interstate level under similar climatological conditions.

Some advantages that have already motivated companies to explore the diploid reproduction of potatoes for future commercialization, putting themselves at the forefront in the creation of this type of varieties.

Infoagro Editor: Lydia Medero

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