Potato Genome Will Help Improve World’s Top Vegetable Crop, Says AgBioResearch Scientist

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Robin Buell (view larger image)

It’s been cultivated for nearly 7,000 years and grown on every continent except Antarctica. Now the humble potato has had its genome sequenced.

“The potato is the most important vegetable worldwide,” said Robin Buell, MAES plant biology researcher, who was part of the consortium that released the first draft sequence of the potato genome. “This first draft that is being released will help breeders improve yield, quality, disease resistance and nutritional value.”

The Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium, a team of 39 scientists from 14 countries, began work on the potato genome project in 2006. The complete sequence is estimated to be 840 million base pairs (about one quarter the size of the human genome). The draft sequence, which covers 95 percent of potato genes, is available at http://www.potatogenome.net and will be updated over the next six months.

Potatoes are members of the Solanaceae family, as are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, petunias and tobacco. Buell, along with MAES potato breeder Dave Douches, is leading a $5.4 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to improve the quality, yield, drought tolerance and disease resistance of potatoes and tomatoes. Known as the SolCAP project, the research aims to use emerging DNA sequence data with basic research data to improve tomato and potato varieties.

“The timing of the release of the potato draft sequence is nice for the SolCAP project,” Douches said. “We’re combining genetics and breeding, so having a draft of the genome will help us find genetic markers for desirable traits in potatoes, which will make breeding more precise.”

Buell is determining which genes are expressed in specific potato plant tissue to better understand the tubersÂ’ growth and development.

Buell’s potato genome sequencing research was funded by the National Science Foundation and was done in collaboration with Chris Town, of the J. Craig Venter Institute, and Jiming Jiang, of the University of Wisconsin.

A complete list of the scientists who worked on the potato genome is available online.

In 2007, more than 325 million tons of potatoes were produced around the world. China is the top global potato consumer in overall quantity, downing about 47.5 million tons of potatoes in 2005. Per capita, Belarusians are the leaders in savoring spuds, eating nearly 400 pounds of potatoes per year. The United States consumed slight more than 17 million tons of potatoes in 2005, which makes the country the world’s fourth largest potato consumer. Each person in the United States eats, on average, more than 119 pounds of potatoes per year.

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