Knowing Your Roots

Blog 3

Today’s potatoes suffer from lowered self-esteem due to constant bombardment from the media’s perception of the “ideal potato.”  This phenomenon first emerged in 1952 with the debut of Mr. Potato Head.  Here was the plastic representation of what a potato was supposed to look like — only two eyes, smooth, unblemished skin and that perfect oblong shape that was designed to be baked and filled with goodies. No mention of the myriad of nasty diseases that are likely to attack a real potato during its life. In recent years, this popularized image has only gained traction due to Mr. Potato Head’s breakout role in the box office hit “Toy Story.” This media exposure is sending a message to our potato youth that in order to be beautiful they should ignore life’s realities and emulate a plastic toy.

But help is on the way! Scientists in the University of Wisconsin potato breeding programs are working hard to help young tubers grow-up in the field to reach the size, shape and taste that consumers want, without succumbing to all those nasty diseases. In our lab, we are employing advanced techniques that enable potato varieties (already accepted in the marketplace) to have all the qualities that consumers want and resist infection from diseases without the need for grower intervention. In my project, I am working with one of the most widespread and destructive diseases of potatoes, aptly named early dying. This disease is caused by a fungus called Verticillium that attacks through the roots and clogs the plant stems causing them to wilt and die prematurely. The fungus persists in soil for multiple years and growers have few options other than fumigation or extending the time between potatoes to multiple years, which are both hard on the pocketbook!  

My lab has identified several wild potato plants (the ancestors of modern varieties, which originated in South America) and developed resistance to Verticillium naturally. I am working to tease apart the genetic material of the resistant plants and identify the specific genes that make them able to avoid the disease. I am then using advanced molecular techniques to introduce the resistance genes into modern potato varieties to produce a new variety that retains all the desirable features but will not succumb to this destructive disease. This work has been ongoing for many years and has included the foreign exploration needed to locate wild potatoes that are housed in the International Potato Germplasm Collection in Door County, Wisconisin; and the research laboratories, greenhouses and field stations in Madison, Hancock and Rhinelander.

This is a complex process, and our lab is working on a wide array of naturally occurring disease resistance and storage characteristics that will allow the potatoes of tomorrow to be comfortable in their own skins and have true beauty without resorting to the stereotypes of toys!

For more information contact Austin Meier at: www.haltermanlab.com

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