How the Promise of Gene Editing Drew Thilani Jayakody into Potato Research

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Borlaug Scholar Thilani Jayakody explains what lead to her interest in potato breeding.

The Borlaug Scholar program is an award program run by the National Association of Plant Breeders (NAPB). They are given to students in plant breeding and genetics who have a strong desire to contribute to the improvement of plants. Each recipient receives a NAPB membership, registration and travel costs for the NAPB annual meeting and a NAPB mentor. This year potato researcher Thilani Jayakody, who is a PhD student in the plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology program at Michigan State University, was picked to as a Borlaug Scholar.

Jayakody’s research interests led her to join the potato breeding and genetics program of David S. Douches to address the persistent problems in the fresh and processing potato industry. She is an NSF-NRT-IMPACTS Fellow, and her research seeks to understand the relative specificities of the most popular genome editing tools when applied to complex plant genomes. In addition to being passionate about her research, she cares deeply for people. Jayakody has been a mentor to several undergraduates, serves on the curriculum committee for NSF-NRT-IMPACTS, and is the Association of Crop and Soil Sciences Recruitment Chair.

Here she tells us her story….

I was born and raised in the United States, but my parents immigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka so that my father could pursue a PhD in organic chemistry. Although we moved several times as I was growing up, one constant throughout my childhood was my mother’s garden. She has quite the green thumb, and we are always overflowing with fresh flowers and produce. I was clearly influenced by my parent’s appreciation for life and the sciences. I think of my current interest in plant breeding as an homage to both of my parents and their talents.

I was raised Buddhist and since I was very young, I had been taught how to live mindfully. I think mindfulness is also a great strength to have for conducting research. It means being attentive to the details of my projects as well as the people around me.

During my undergraduate I was confident I wanted to pursue a PhD in plant breeding, because I saw the promise of using genome editing as a new breeding technique for crop improvement. But since the technology was still emerging at the time, it hadn’t quite made it to most university-associated breeding programs. Potatoes were an exception! There is an incredible research community behind the potato industry, and they were one of the only breeding programs in the nation that was pursuing this kind of research at the time.

The recent popularity of genome editing as a new breeding technique led me to join the potato breeding program at Michigan State University for a PhD in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology. Here, I can connect my research interests in genome editing to the applied goals of our breeding program to address persistent problems in the fresh and processing potato industry. Currently, I’m working to reduce the effects of enzymatic browning in our germplasm through gene editing. I’m also working to understand the accuracy of new genome editing platforms, as these off-targeting effects are a major regulatory concern in accepting genome edited food crops.

I have also expanded the genetic and genomic resources available for gene editing in potato by screening available germplasm for traits valued for applications of genome editing. I then sequenced and assembled a new potato genome for one of these lines, so that it can be used as a resource for future applications of genome editing in potato. I’m fortunate to be taking part in research that both progresses our applied breeding goals as well as foundational knowledge in the application of genome editing in plants.

Even though I’m very proud of all I have accomplished throughout my academic career, I could never say that I did it all by myself. I couldn’t have done it without the privileges of having supportive parents, or without the mentors who took the time to train me, or without the friends who have always been there for me.

For me, being a successful researcher isn’t just about the pride in my own achievements, but about seeing the entire field grow and I believe that one of the most powerful ways to see this kind of progress is simply by helping each other.

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