Biotech Crops

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Biotech Crops

The conception some consumers have of biotech crops as “Frankenfoods” is not going to be easy to change. But researchers are making headway with developments that could be the key to increased consumer acceptance of genetically modified (GM) potatoes.

While biotech potatoes haven’t been grown in the U.S. since 2001, in 2008, growers in 25 countries planted 310 million acres of other biotech crops, according to Walter De Jong, associate professor in the department of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University. Potatoes could be added to that acreage in the near future.

SolCAP’s Objectives
SolCAP, or Solanaceae Coordinated Agricultural Project is designed to bring together researchers from various disciplines. Researchers are currently working to develop molecular markers that can be used for applied potato and tomato breeding. Some of the group’s objectives include:

- Create an education program to train graduate students in genome-based breeding. This will result in a standardized database of phenotypes for key traits across 480 accessions of each commodity, accessible through the SolCAP and Solanaceae Genome Network (SGN) websites.

- Amplify outreach efforts by developing an eXtension Plant Breeding and Genomics Community of Practice (PBGCoP) to develop continuing education material aimed at practicing plant breeders, their staff, and seed industry professionals. SolCAP is creating a Web community (PBGCoP) and is providing leadership to foster cross-disciplinary and cross-commodity networking and collaboration to generate outreach materials for publication on

- Collect standardized phenotypic data across multiple environments for tomato and potato. A standardized database of phenotypes for key traits across core collections of each crop will be linked to the genotypic data, accessible through the Solanaceae Genome Network website (SGN; URL 7).

- Develop extensive sequence data of expressed genes, and identify Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) markers distributed across the genome and associated with specific candidate genes for sugar, carbohydrate, and vitamin biosynthetic pathways.

- Establish centralized facilities for genotyping a core set of SNP markers in standard germplasm panels in tomato and potato. Develop a database of integrated and mapped markers and genotypes for at least 480 accessions for each crop.

- Address regional, individual program, and emerging needs within the Solanaceae community through a small grants program.

- Create integrated, breeder-focused resources for genotypic and phenotypic analysis by leveraging existing databases and resources.

Marker-Assisted Selection

De Jong is quick to note that even if biotech potatoes become more accepted, the expense ($5 to $10 million per cultivar) of bringing them to market under the current regulations likely will hinder wide-scale production.

“Only the cultivars with large acreage will ever be transformed under the current regulatory framework, and so there’s only a handful that you could ever recoup your investment on,” he says. “For niche markets, or even in the Northeast where I’m a breeder, that just isn’t going to fly.”

Marker-assisted selection (MAS), however, is a new, promising technology that is becoming more affordable, even for public sector potato breeders, according to De Jong. DNA markers make it possible to identify the offspring with the most potential by evaluating the genes they carry.

One of the most recent developments that bodes well for MAS is a draft of the potato genome sequence, which was just released last year. “To a first approximation, this allows us to know what genes potato has, and how many copies of each gene it carries,” De Jong says. “Pinpointing genes of interest is now a lot easier than it used to be.”


De Jong also is working on a project called SolCAP (Solanaceae Coordinated Agricultural Project), funded by USDA. The goal of the project is to bring researchers from a wide variety of disciplines together to tackle larger agricultural problems. “SolCAP is working to develop a very large number of molecular markers that are useful for both applied potato as well as tomato breeding,” De Jong says.

As of mid-September, SolCAP had tested approximately 8,000 markers. “A big problem in developing markers that are useful for potato breeding is that potato has four copies of every chromosome, and that complicates the genetics a lot,” he explains. “Having 8,000 markers means even if you have to throw away a lot — which we will given the material — we’ll still have plenty to work with.”

De Jong is confident that biotech potato research and development will grow exponentially in the next decade. With the markers SolCAP has developed, along with the draft sequence of the potato genome released last year, potato geneticists and breeders are excited about the promise of using modern tools to identify genes that can be manipulated more efficiently. “I expect over the next five to 10 years, we’ll be able to discern a lot of relationships between markers and important traits in potato, like ability to make potato chips or french fries, or resistance to various diseases, which we’ve never been able to do before,” De Jong says.

“In an attempt to allay consumer concern about the presence of foreign DNA in GM potato, over the past 10 years methods have been developed that allow potato to be engineered without introducing any non-potato DNA,” De Jong says. Most notable, he adds, is research under way at the JR Simplot Company, one of the largest privately held international food processing companies in the world. Researchers there are focusing on modifying potatoes by adding just potato DNA back into potatoes, rather than taking genes from other species.
According to De Jong, the number of genes available to use as payload is increasing rapidly, as more genes are characterized and isolated in potato. “Perhaps the most interesting potato gene is from a wild potato species (Solanum bulbocastanum) that is resistant to late blight,” he says. While he doesn’t know how the new all-native potatoes will be received by consumers, De Jong does suspect that even if GM crops’ most strident opponents still won’t accept them, some consumers, once they know that the vegetables aren’t crossed with any foreign species, might warm up to the idea.


Ann-Marie Vazzano was managing editor of American Fruit Grower magazine, a Meister publication.

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