Porter, Tan working to develop genomic tools for potato breeders 

Two University of Maine researchers are part of a team of plant geneticists and breeders working to develop tools that will help Maine scientists and farmers become more efficient in breeding new cultivars and bringing novel, improved potato varieties to market.

Greg Porter, professor of crop ecology and management in the School of Food and Agriculture, and E. Han Tan, assistant professor of plant genetics with the School of Biology and Ecology, have partnered with a team of national and international researchers to develop and test genomics-assisted tools intended to advance the breeding of economically important polyploid food crops such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, ornamentals such as roses, and aesthetic grasses, including turfgrass.

Faculty at Texas A&M University (TAMU) are leading the project, which is funded with a $4.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Porter and Tan are part of the research group from TAMU, Cornell University, North Carolina State University, the University of Minnesota and Oregon State University working to develop applications for potato breeding.

Genomic-assisted tools for hybridizing diploid crops have recently become available and are now widely used to improve a variety of economically important crops. But adapting these tools for polyploid crops, such as potatoes, has proven difficult, requiring plant geneticists and growers to employ traditional crossing and selection methods that can take more than a decade to produce improved cultivars. A key goal of this project is to develop faster, more reliable polyploid breeding methods to speed introduction of new potato varieties.

Investigators estimate that successful development of genomic and computational tools for polyploid breeding could accelerate the rate of genetic gain in a wide range of plant breeding programs while producing higher quality, and more productive and resilient varieties. If effective, these tools could reduce the timeline from hybridization to cultivar evaluation by 50%.

“Our potato improvement program is very effective at delivering improved potato varieties to Maine growers and beyond. The exciting new DNA-based tools that will be developed in this research project have the potential to speed up the delivery of new, higher quality, high yielding, pest resistant potato varieties to Maine growers and the U.S. potato industry,” says Porter.

Porter and Tan will work to integrate these newly developed software and computational tools in the University of Maine’s conventional potato breeding program to identify desirable traits in locally adapted cultivars, and to map those characteristics to the potato genome. Genomic and phenotypic data from several hundred of UMaine’s potato breeding selections will be analyzed each year using the new tools to validate the processes and model applications for other researchers and plant breeding programs. 

In addition, the tools developed as part of this project will be available on a community resource website managed by Washington State University, including software and manuals, training datasets and tutorials.

Contact: Joan Perkins, joan.perkins@maine.edu