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Unlocking the Potato’s True Potential

LAST AUGUST, at the Potato Association of America (PAA) annual meeting, I had an opportunity to talk with Michiel de Vries, Solynta’s research team lead, about the work he and his colleagues are carrying out.

Solynta, a potato seed breeding company based in Wageningen, the Netherlands, has invented a fast and efficient hybrid breeding technology. One that could change global food consumption and unlock the true potential of the potato, de Vries said. 

This technology allows targeted breeding in potato — breeders can quickly combine favourable traits from different potato varieties, such as disease resistance, stress tolerance, improved nutrition, increased yields, improved taste, and other traits of value to consumers, farmers and processors. Potato crops can also be produced with less water and land, using fewer pesticides and fungicides, said de Vries.

This is accomplished by using elite parent lines that, when crossed, produce a hybrid cultivar, which shares the best characteristics of both parents as well as hybrid vigour. These inbred parental lines produce very stable and highly predictable offspring. “That was really key,” de Vries said. “No one was able to do that.”

At the PAA meeting, de Vries presented the genomic sequence of the inbred parental line Solyntus. He said Solynta wants to share the parent material and the genome sequence with the potato research community to advance genetic studies, trait development and potato production around the world. “Solynta is a small company in a big world and there’s so much about potato we don’t know,” he said.

“We need to connect with the academic research community to solve all the outstanding issues and we can’t do that alone. That’s the reason we are supplying this research line together with the genomic sequence to academic researchers. We would like Solynta’s inbred line to be used as a new standard reference to develop new genetic insights on the potato. Now we have a foundation on which we can do research and will be applicable to growers and consumers.”

Canadian and U.S. universities are interested in collaborating on this topic and work is ongoing in the Netherlands and Sweden. “All the researchers are convinced this is the way forward,” he added.

According to de Vries, due to the complexity of the potato’s genetic makeup, using conventional breeding to introduce a trait like disease resistance could take up to 50 years. However, researchers at Solynta have proven they can add resistance genes in two years with hybrid breeding, he said.

One of the other major benefits of this new technique is hybrid varieties can be grown from true seeds rather than seed tubers, eliminating the many disease and logistical issues associated with using seed tubers. For example, 25 grams of true potato seed can replace 2,500 kilograms of seed tubers and there are no seed-associated viral, bacterial or fungal diseases.

In Africa, farmers are already growing Solynta hybrids as the company is involved in advanced registration trials. Solynta will be entering the markets of countries with low technological capabilities first, where yields could potentially be doubled. Then, in time, the company will move into the markets of countries with high technological capabilities, such as Europe and North America, where hybrid varieties could increase yields by 30 per cent, said de Vries.

However, for Canadian growers, de Vries emphasized it will be business as usual. For the foreseeable future, growers will continue to use seed tubers. “When Solynta has developed a hybrid with the right characteristics for the Canadian market, these seed tubers will be produced using true potato seed.”

According to the researcher, all the traits needed to develop the hybrid varieties for market are there, such as good yield, chipping quality and tuber size, but not all in one hybrid — yet. “We have all the pieces of the puzzle, but we haven’t put it all together. That will take some time, perhaps three to five years, but we know we are going to do it…. That’s just breeding and that’s what we do,” he said. 

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