Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘potato breeding’

Why would you want to X-ray a potato?

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When you think about how to use new advances in X-ray technology, potato breeding is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. However, scientific researchers at the University of Wisconsin are doing just that to help develop new potato varieties — and to do it faster!  State-of-the art, high- speed X-ray technology is now becoming a routine practice for evaluating potential new potato varieties, because it is faster and much more effective.  Do you remember your last X-ray at the doctor office? It was time-consuming, uncomfortable and expensive.  Not so with potatoes! Every day during harvest, tens of thousands of potatoes are examined in just milliseconds, at virtually no cost!

This technology is possible by incorporating a high speed X-ray imager into the potato-grading line (where potatoes are evaluated after harvest).  This imager takes an X-ray image of each tuber as it passes through the machine at a high rate of speed.  From that image,  computers calculate just about anything that you ever wanted to know about that tuber, including its weight, length, width, height and shape; most remarkably, it can determine if there are defects on the outside and even the inside of the tuber. This is a huge improvement on previous technology in both speed and expense, which is akin to doctors being able to take the X-rays they need as you drive past the clinic!   (more…)

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What makes a potato beautiful?

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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!   (more…)

Investing in the Future: Potato Research in Wisconsin Pays Big Dividends

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For any progressive business, it is common knowledge that investment in research and development will increase its efficiency or broaden its portfolio. This principal applies to agriculture as well and nowhere is this better exemplified than by Wisconsin’s potato growers. These hardworking growers are known across the United States for their innovations in production, resource conservation and sustainability. These achievements did not occur by happenstance; they required a vision and an investment from the industry to achieve that vision. Recognizing this, every Wisconsin potato grower voluntarily pays 6 cents to their association for every 100 pounds of potatoes produced annually. This is no paltry sum, as Wisconsin is the 3rd largest potato-producing state in the US with close to 28 million 100 pound sacks grown during 2013!

A large portion of this money is invested back into the University of Wisconsin to provide scientists from multiple disciplines the dollars needed to fund research in all areas impacting potatoes. Over 25 projects are funded annually – ranging from short-term, innovative problem solving to long-term, basic science- for a total of over $350,000 each year. The initial association investment of $10-20,000 in funds to individual projects pays big dividends to the growers, the industry and the state, as UW researchers are able to use this funding to leverage additional federal funding sources back to Wisconsin by over 100 fold! In 2014 this translated into over $30 million return on a $350,000 investment!

The dedication and excellence of faculty, academic staff and graduate students across multiple academic disciplines generates remarkable results. To give readers a glimpse into some of the fascinating individual stories being generated in labs and field stations across Wisconsin, the New Family Farm postings over the next several months will feature ongoing research being conducted by graduate students. These will address important topic areas that include Potato Breeding, Seed Production, Growing Potatoes, Protecting Natural Resources and Managing Pests. Each topic will be introduced by faculty experts in the field and followed by specific graduate student research projects. We hope you enjoy these glimpses into the stories that are evolving in one of the nation’s premier potato research programs.

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