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Potato genome set to help industry address challenges

27 July 2011

An international consortium that includes British scientists has sequenced the potato genome, opening possibilities for exploring the characteristics that contribute to a successful commercial variety.


These recent developments in mapping the potato genome could offer growers access to varieties that are drought tolerant or are resistant to diseases such as blight or potato cyst nematodes.

 “Genome mapping will facilitate innovative ways of normal breeding of potatoes as it will be easier to identify genes and genetic markers responsible for important variety traits” says AHDB Potatoes head of R&D, Dr Mike Storey.

“These findings will lead to a more in-depth understanding of potato biology and how the environment affects it. This could result in more efficient use of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, helping growers minimise cultivation costs whilst maximising sustainable yields.”

Mike notes that although pests and diseases will continue to evolve, the new information on the genetic blueprint of the potato will help the sector develop responses to address these challenges.

The new knowledge is also expected to have significant impact on the amount of time it takes to develop a new variety. Characteristics are currently changed through conventional breeding programmes that take between ten and twelve years. It is expected that the genome sequence will provide a ‘street map’ for where the useful genes are, leading to faster development times.

“It is important for the potato industry to be ‘in tune’ with customers and the new technology will help it adapt more quickly to changes in consumer tastes,” continues Mike.

“AHDB Potatoes, recognising these potential industry benefits from the project, contributed funding together with the Scottish Government, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Defra. This enabled British researchers to make a significant contribution to the international assignment that comprised researchers from fourteen countries.”

The British institutes involved in the Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium (PGSC) are The James Hutton Institute in Scotland, the University of Dundee and Imperial College, London.

The potato genome
Every organism has a genome, a chemical 'instruction book' or 'blueprint' that describes how all the genes should be put together. This is written down as a DNA sequence. The sequence contains many tens of thousands of genes which can be thought of as 'words' in the sentence. Each gene controls different aspects of how the organism grows and develops. Slight changes in these instructions give rise to different varieties - each individual has a slightly different version of the DNA sequence for the species.

Understanding the complete genome sequence, the exact spelling of the DNA letters, for potato will help scientists develop a better understanding of how a potato grows and develops, leading to improved crops worldwide.

Each copy of the potato genome consists of 12 chromosomes and has a length of approximately 840 million base pairs, making it a medium-sized plant genome.

A high quality, well-annotated genome sequence of potato provides a valuable foundation which can be combined with existing knowledge of potato genetics and the continuing advances in analysing which genes are switched on or off and which chemicals are produced when and where. Observing how these changes are affected by changes in the genome will allow scientists to identify different variants of genes which are responsible for important quantitative traits in potato.

The PGSC released the draft version of the full potato genome towards the end of 2009, and since then it has been refining the ‘assembly’ and performing various types of analysis for publication.

About the potato
The Potato is a member of the Solanaceae, a plant family that includes several other economically important species, such as tomato, eggplant (aubergine), petunia and pepper. Potato is an important global food source. Potato is the most important non-grain food crop, with a world-wide production of 309 million tons in 2007. By 2020 it is estimated that more than two billion people worldwide will depend on potato for food, feed, or income. Improving potato varieties so that they can better cope with environmental challenges such as drought, and pests or diseases are key objectives of global potato breeding programmes.

The potato has one of the broadest genetic diversities of any cultivated plant. Wild species of potato are very widely distributed in the Americas, from the South Western USA to Southern Chile and Argentina and from sea level to the highlands of the Andes Mountains. Many wild species can interbreed directly with the common potato and possess a wide range of valuable traits such as resistance to pests and diseases or tolerance to frost and drought, making them a useful resource for breeding new varieties. The genes underlying many important traits, such as drought tolerance, are poorly understood.  The potato genome sequence will provide a major boost to gaining a better understanding of how potato traits are linked to genes, providing a foundation for future breeding efforts. Currently potato breeding takes about 10-12 years to develop a new variety. It is expected that being able to use the genome information will dramatically shorten the time taken to breed new varieties.

Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium
The international Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium (PGSC) is a collaboration between 16 research groups in 14 countries; Argentina, Brazil, China, Chile, India, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The PGSC has its basis in long-standing research on the molecular genetics of potato within the partner organisations, and includes partners with world-leading expertise in genome sequencing and computational analysis.

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