Potato genome set to revolutionise breeding and ensure food security

11th Jul 2011

UK scientists, as part of an international consortium, have sequenced the genome of potato - the first major UK crop plant to be fully sequenced. This news holds great promise for speeding up the traditionally time-consuming process of developing new varieties (currently 10-12 years to breed a new variety); varieties that in many cases will help to ensure future food security due to improved yield, quality, nutritional value, and resistance to pests and diseases.

Potato is one of the top staple foods in the world and is the most important non-grain crop for human consumption. Consumption is expanding in developing countries, which now account for more than half of the global harvest and where the potato's ease of cultivation and high energy content have made it a valuable cash crop for millions of farmers. With the global population set to reach 9 billion by 2050 there will be many more mouths to feed and the genome sequence will allow scientists and breeders to increase the efficiency of potato production to help meet this challenge.

The UK component of the Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium (PGSC) is led by The James Hutton Institute in Scotland with the University of Dundee and Imperial College London. Funding for the UK-based research is from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, The Potato Council, and the Scottish Government.

Jim Paice, Minister for Agriculture, said "This is a great achievement by British scientists and is fantastic news for our farmers. If we're to feed the nine billion people projected to be living on the planet by 2050 then potato crops with improved water uptake and resistance to disease and drought will be an important development." Dr Glenn Bryan from The James Hutton Institute, who led the UK team said "This genome sequence is a major step forward in understanding potato biology. It will lead to accelerated breeding of new potato varieties through use of the genome data to identify genes and genetic markers for important traits".

"Use of genetics-based selection methods is very promising and technology to exploit the genome sequence immediately is already being prepared in the UK and elsewhere.

"In addition, an understanding of the genetic blueprint for potato gives us the option of introducing - through breeding programmes - desirable characteristics into existing varieties, such as enhanced pest and disease resistance and improved tuber quality characteristics."

Dr David Martin, who led the bioinformatics team at the University of Dundee, said "Piecing together the exact DNA sequence of the genome has been a technically demanding task, requiring the expertise of all our collaborators worldwide. We can see for the first time the secrets of the potato genome, and now begins the challenge of analysing them over the coming months and years".

Dr Gerard Bishop, Imperial College London said "The wider crop research community has been eagerly anticipating this news; the potato genome will also help our understanding of closely related crops such as tomato, which will be of enormous benefit."

Potato is a member of the Solanaceae family, which also includes tomato, capsicum (the peppers we all buy in the supermarket), and aubergine. As a food it is becoming more and more popular, and is increasingly important in Africa and many parts of Asia, giving it an important potential role in global food security.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive, BBSRC said "This is wonderful news - the potato genome will enable scientists to do research now to underpin the developments we will come to rely on in 30-40 years time.

"We must use modern research strategies as well as investigating technologies such as marker assisted breeding and genetic modification so that we can know what is required to ensure sustainable increases in crop yields.

"Genome sequencing is one of most important strategies we have at our disposal and with recent progress in data storage and accessibility it will be possible for plant breeders to identify the best genetic sequences to target and so accelerate breeding programmes."

Allan Stevenson is Chairman of the Potato Council, which provided some of the funding for this research; he is also an East Lothian farmer, businessman and Board member of the James Hutton Institute. Mr Stevenson said "This research is valuable for the GB potato industry. It takes us much closer to understanding how the potato builds its own resistance to pest and diseases, as well as how the plant responds to lack of vital elements such as water. The industry needs to be in a position where we can utilise this understanding to continue to develop varieties of potatoes that meet the needs of consumers in a sustainable way."

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