Exclusive: Potato Genome Breakthrough Heralds the Era of Sustainable Production
Potato breeding company Solynta, in collaboration with scientists from the Wageningen University & Research (WUR), has recently published the most complete genome sequence for potatoes to date.
In light of this news, we reached out to Solynta and discussed with the company’s Research Team Lead, Dr. Michiel de Vries, issues such as the impact that the new data can potentially have on the future of the potato chain and the role of genetics in the overall evolution of potato science.
Solynta is known in the industry for establishing a singular, technology platform that allows the creation of new potato varieties with superior traits and performance by targeted breeding. In addition, new varieties are developed manifold faster than what can be achieved by traditional breeding. How does the extended genome knowledge help the company further its research objectives? Continue reading below to find out.
You’ve been working with scientists from the Wageningen University & Research (WUR) on unveiling the potato genome further. Can you please detail the major biological insights afforded by the genome sequencing?
As potato breeders, we are interested in finding traits that benefit both growers and consumers. These traits, such as color and disease resistance, are linked to genes. With this new discovery, we can now map genes much more accurately. The previous genome was a puzzle that consisted of more than 125,000 small pieces, this genome has only 180 larger pieces. As a direct result of Solynta’s collaboration with the WUR we are now more certain of which gene is located where on the genome. To achieve this, we have used the latest sequencing technologies and our in-house bio-informatics experts to join forces with WUR’s. It resulted in an assembled genome that can be downloaded and used readily by any researcher. Mapping the genes is necessary to know which potato variety contains the desired beneficial trait. With this knowledge we can make targeted crosses that lead to predictable outcomes.
How will potato growers be able to benefit from these findings?
Clearly understanding the genome will allow potato researchers to be more efficient and effective. This means that over time farmers will receive better varieties sooner. In today’s world of everchanging climate extremes, you could imagine new varieties with combinations of disease resistances, drought tolerance, or any number of other traits beneficial to grower. The transformation of the potato to a hybrid crop, as invented by Solynta, will make these insights in genomics available to farmers faster.
What makes reading the genome structure of the potato so challenging?
Up to now, the vast majority of cultivated potato has been tetraploid, meaning that it has four copies of each gene. These copies are strings of genes, called chromosomes. Reading the genome with the four copies makes it very difficult to see a difference between genes that are on a different string, or whether they are on the same string adjacent to each other.
At Solynta we are working with diploid potato, which has only two of these chromosome strings. In order to make the interpretation of gene location even more straightforward, we have developed a potato line where both genetic strings were almost identical.
Please detail how the latest breakthroughs are likely to lead to a more sustainable production.
This will certainly deliver more knowledge of disease resistance genes, drought tolerance, and many other important traits. Solynta’s hybrid breeding approach allows us to use that knowledge directly. For example, Solynta could use this simpler genome to identify and introduce disease resistance genes into a variety. Under ideal conditions this could be done in two years. When combined with Solynta’s faster hybrid breeding technology, this innovation will lead to more sustainable potato production sooner.
Can genomics deliver climate-change ready crops?
The field of genomics is one of the fastest moving fields of science; however, genomics alone is not a silver bullet for solving climate change. At Solynta, we are speeding up our breeding pipeline using modern genomics tools. However, the traditional breeding techniques of selecting varieties in target environments have a long history of success. Using our genomics knowledge and combining this with hybrid breeding, Solynta can be more efficient in selecting the right varieties under very stressful conditions. This combination results in faster, targeted and more predictable breeding, which, in turn, will help to supply new hybrids more ready to cope with our ever-changing climate.
What are some future plans for research in this area?
Solynta is proud to be part of a the EUR20m research grant, called MiCROP. This project will investigate the relationship between plant and soil microbes. The soil microbes are considered the plants’ second genome. We will find out which microbes will enable our hybrids to grow better under adverse conditions. This field of research will be important in the transformation to sustainable and resilient cropping systems. Solynta is at the forefront of this new technology development.
How big an impact has our growing knowledge of genetics had on the general evolution of potato science in the last 20 to 30 years?
Solynta has invented hybrid breeding for potato in 2009 and published about it in 2011, the same year the first potato genome was published. Today, we are at the turning point for potato science and breeding because only now we are able to apply the knowledge generated by scientists in potato genetics in a commercial breeding program. Before, knowledge generated could hardly be applied, and because conventional breeding takes so much, there was no incentive to use it. The novel insights from genetics have made breeding much more efficient and directed. Hybrid breeding will allow us to benefit from these insights faster than conventional breeding programs, so the results will arrive at farmers’ fields earlier.