Wild potato genes may be key to stronger spuds

New research suggests that limited genetic differences in potato lineages has left British and American spuds vulnerable to the disease that caused the Irish potato famine.

Plant scientists at the James Hutton Institute and the University of Dundee have revealed that commercial potato crops are under constant threat of late blight, the pathogen behind one of Europe’s most devastating famines, but wild potato genes might be the cure.

Dr. Ingo Hein, a senior scientist based at the Institute’s Cell and Molecular Sciences group, says that by using tools developed by his team, they could put potato breeders at ease, helping farmers produce fit fritters instead of the frail.

“By using the dRenSeq and PenSeq tools we have developed in collaboration with peers at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, we are able for the first time ever to track the historical and geographical patterns of resilient genes in American and British potatoes,” Dr. Hein said.

“Our preliminary data suggests that the most commercially valuable potato varieties grown in the UK and US contain a maximum of four genes already defeated by the late blight pathogen, P. infestans.

Crucially, we have also been able to identify new genes that remain effective against this disease which are not current used in commercial potato production.

“So by combining these effective genes we can prolong the longevity of individual resistances to the disease and reduce the need for chemical sprays on plants.

“This is highly relevant for breeding, as currently, the control methods for late blight in most parts of the world are based mainly on the use of chemical sprays which can be environmentally hazardous and expensive.”

Dr. Hein has been awarded £625,000 in funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to continue identifying the more resilient potatoes with industry partners McCain, Greenvale and James Hutton Limited.