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.
“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.”
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.