Hybrid potatoes: Potato seed instead of seed potatoes

December 14, 2017, Reading time: 4 minutes

KWS will continue to process the versatile potato in a breeding process, pursuing long-term goals: At the end of the process, hybrid potatoes, propagated via seeds, are a completely new and innovative product.

Numerous employees work on the hybrid potato at the Emmeloord breeding station

Numerous employees work on the hybrid potato at the Emmeloord breeding station

KWS is convinced that potatoes offer great potential. It is one of the most important staple foods worldwide, and the demand for potato products is increasing. This has also increased demand for the nightshade plant: Not only the yield of the varieties should increase, but also the quality of the compounds. The varieties currently on the market are usually already pretty much "long in the tooth" and breeding progress is limited. KWS has recognised an opportunity to exploit the potential of the potato using innovative approaches, in order to give farmers and their customers additional advantages, and to keep the potato competitive. To achieve this long-term goal, a three-pronged approach is being pursued, ranging from cultivation of competitive diploid potato varieties, to hybridisation and development of seed.

A look at the genome of the potato clarifies the special challenges facing breeders: Today's commercial potato varieties are tetraploid, meaning they have four sets of chromosomes. Each property is therefore present in four different forms (alleles). If tetraploid plants are crossed, the phenotypic appearance of the offspring splits much more strongly than with diploid plants. Such diversity means much more effort for selection, and it can take 20 years for a new variety to be launched. The first goal for achieving a hybrid potato is therefore the development of competitive diploid populations. Many features can then be adapted more easily in breeding. These include yield potential and disease resistance, as well as quality and processing properties, such as form, starch content and shelf life. "To develop genetically homogeneous and powerful parental lines for the hybrid breeding, it is also important to overcome self incompatibility of diploid potatoes and a strong inbreeding depression", says Andreas Loock, head of sugarbeet and potato breeding at KWS. In the process, breeders can benefit from the vast amount of experience KWS has accumulated over the decades in breeding hybrids in plants such as sugarbeet and maize.

The flowering of the potato plant – object of research

The flowering of the potato plant – object of research

At the end of this visionary product development, we may eventually have a hybrid potato seed. The potato seed would usefully supplement the traditional seed potato on the market and create completely new options with its properties. The development of a hybrid potato seed would be technologically an innovation leap, which would also mean a change for farmers: They would have to change their cultivation systems from the previous seed potatoes to seed. Seed potatoes have the advantage of being able to cope well with the cold in spring and, thanks to the stored starch, develop faster than potatoes from seed. In contrast, there are also clear advantages of the so-called "True Potato Seeds": Cooling in a lodging, and in particular, time-consuming transport of seed potatoes could be omitted, if seed could be packed in handy boxes. Lengthy storage and worldwide delivery of hundreds of thousands of tons of seed potatoes every year are logistically very complex and the tubers quickly become victim to pests.

Even though implementation of a new approach is still a long way off, and a number of questions still need to be clarified, KWS has embarked on the described stages and continuous research and development. "We have been working on this since 2011 and we have just had our first successes. Thanks to the breeding station commissioned four years ago in Emmeloord, the Netherlands, we have created, in addition to technological resources, ideal spatial conditions for a long-term focus on seed for hybrid potatoes. Our vision is that one day we will be able to sow less than 100 grams of potato seed on one hectare, instead of planting 2.5 tons of potato tubers," explains Peter Hofmann, Member of the Executive Board of KWS.

Breeding station Emmeloord – this is where the hybrid potato has been bred since 2013

Breeding station Emmeloord – this is where the hybrid potato has been bred since 2013

Keyword: Hybrid breeding

This breeding method developed in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century makes use of the heterosis effect. In the process, a combination of genetically different, pure-bred lines - inbred lines - leads to increased efficiency of mixed-breed offspring, the so-called hybrids. However, the superiority of hybrids over conventional lines is largely lost in the next generation due to genetic breakdown.

To develop hybrid varieties with an excellent level of performance is very expensive: Two different line breeding programmes are required for the production of inbred lines. For example, KWS cultivates maize, sugarbeet, rapeseed, rye and sunflower varieties with hybrid breeding.

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