Super spuds are coming.
A genetically modified potato that could resist destructive blight, defend itself against parasitic worms, avoid bruising, and cut down on the accumulation of a suspected carcinogen during cooking would be worth many billions of dollars per year to potato producers across the world. It could also serve as a model technology for addressing issues that affect many different crops and are increasingly likely to cause concerns about global food security as the population grows and the world’s climate becomes more unpredictable (see “Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods”).
The potato Jones is aiming for will contain three genes his group has shown to confer resistance to late blight and two genes researchers at the University of Leeds have found to block infestation by a tiny worm called the potato cyst nematode. It will also have DNA the U.S. company J.R. Simplot used to engineer a potato variety, recently commercialized, that has fewer dark spots and contains less asparagine, a chemical that can cause the accumulation of a suspected carcinogen during high-temperature cooking.
Jones’s group has already engineered a blight-resistant potato, using a single gene it cloned from one found in a wild potato plant. For a commercial product, though, a single resistance gene will not be enough, he says, because it would likely lead to the emergence of pathogen strains resistant to that gene. Jones says an important objective of this project is to test the hypothesis that “stacking” multiple resistance genes can safeguard against this danger. His group found all three genes in wild potatoes.
Potatoes are a key staple crop all over the world. In terms of direct human consumption, they are among the top foods globally, along with wheat and rice. They are also quite susceptible to disease, particularly late blight, which led to the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s. Caused by a fungus-like organism, it remains a “disastrous scourge” on potato crops, Jones says, and farmers in the U.K. must spray pesticide 15 times a year to combat it. The disease costs the U.K.’s potato industry more than $90 million per year. Globally, it costs some $5 billion.
Parasitic nematodes are a similarly massive economic drain on the potato industry in the U.K. and worldwide owing to the costs of pesticides and lost crops. Researchers from the University of Leeds are contributing DNA sequences to Jones’s new potato that will give it powerful weapons to fight the worms. The Leeds group has shown that introducing genes expressed only in the roots of the new potato should provide the crop with two distinct deterrents against them.
Bruising is another expensive problem. Since consumers prefer potatoes without dark spots, companies waste a huge amount of perfectly edible food. Simplot, which is helping to fund Jones’s project and contributing expertise and technology, recently gained U.S. regulatory approval to sell a potato containing DNA that cuts down on the amount of certain sugars responsible for bruising, as well as the amount of asparagine. Asparagine is responsible for the accumulation of acrylamide, which may increase the risk of certain cancers, during cooking.
To deliver the new DNA, Jones and his colleagues will use a well-established method called transformation, which takes advantage of a natural process by which bacteria transfer DNA to plants. Then they will use extensive screening and DNA analysis to identify a few potatoes that appear to have all the desired traits, and those will be tested in the field. “We want to get things in the field as soon as possible,” says Jones, who says the researchers should know within three years whether they have any lines worth commercializing.
If successful, says Jones, the project will illustrate the value of this technology as a way to make production more sustainable and address food security needs. The same general approach is applicable to other crops and can address other destructive diseases, such as wheat rust, he says.
Since it would have benefits to consumers, farmers, and the environment, “it sounds like they are developing the perfect potato,” says Ewen Mullins, a senior researcher at Teagasc, Ireland’s agriculture research agency. Mullins, who tests the environmental impact of novel plant breeding technologies, says the biggest challenges Jones’s group will face will probably not be technical. The science has progressed so much in recent years that it’s now “relatively straightforward” to develop an organism with this many new traits, he says, though there will be an extensive safety and regulatory process afterward. “The hard part is actually getting consumer acceptance for it,” Mullins says. That process, he adds, should ideally go on in parallel with the technology development.
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
Juan Fontana, Rosetrees Trust consumables grant (Oct 2017), £22,500
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
Neil Ranson, Juan Fontana, Mark Harris, Michelle Peckham, Ralf Richter, Peter Stockley, Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle and colleagues in Engineering, FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Sep 2017), £418,000
Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
Frank Sobott, Adrian Goldman, Mark Harris, Andrew Macdonald, Stephen Muench, Sheena Radford and colleagues in FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Aug 2017), £415,000
Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Ryan Seipke, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £52,116
Mary O'Connell, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £46,986
Hannah Dugdale, NERC (Feb 2017), £504,138
Anastasia Zhuravleva, EPSRC (Jan 2017), £100,792