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March 2, 2020

USDA grant supports potato breeding and genetics program

Michigan State University received $700,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to invest in its potato breeding and genetics program.

The award is part of a $2.25 million four-part grant to support potato breeding in strategic areas across the country, which includes partnering institutions University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University and the University of Wisconsin.

Potato production in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin accounts for nearly a quarter of U.S. potato acreage and a farmgate value of $982.5 million. The North Central region — which also includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota — is responsible for the most potato production outside of the Pacific Northwest.

Dave Douches, a professor in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, has led the MSU potato breeding and genetics program for nearly 30 years. The program has produced nearly 30 new potato varieties. The most recent, Blackberry, is a purple-fleshed variety that took more than 20 years to develop. It is resistant to potato scab and has high antioxidant levels.

“This is a new round of funding for our long-term genetics work to help us interact with growers and develop new varieties,” Douches said. “The USDA has supported these efforts with multiple grants. The advancements we’ve made wouldn’t be possible without this support.”

The grant proposal outlines the following objectives:

  • Identify new varieties with superior agronomics and end-use quality.
  • Screen elite germplasm for resistance to key pests.
  • Develop and leverage genomic tools to enhance breeding efficiency.
  • Transfer new varieties from the breeding programs to the commercial sector.

Douches said that geneticists are looking not only to improve varieties for growers by focusing on disease and pest resistance, but also to meet consumer demand. Enhanced nutritional profiles are a crucial aspect of the research.

“We’ve been most known for producing potatoes that go into snacks such as potato chips,” Douches said. “That’s been important to us, but the companies we’re working with want to explore how we can improve the nutritional properties of our varieties. This can help us make snacking healthier, and all of our partners — from growers to companies — have shown interest in that.”

By: Cameron Rudolph

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