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P.E.I. research scientist searching for path to drought-resistant potatoes

Bourlaye Fofana started with 814 different genetic lines, hoping to find ways to make potatoes better through breeding. Disease resistance and a more attractive appearance used to rank on top — before climate change made drought resistance a key quality for growers.

Genetic research first step toward varieties more suited to a changing climate

A research scientist on Prince Edward Island is searching for new varieties of potatoes that will grow more quickly and be more resistant to drought, to help potato growers battling the impacts of climate change.

Bourlaye Fofana has a collection of more than 800 different genetic lines of potatoes that he has been studying over the last decade for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Specimens from some of the lines are being grown in fields at the Harrington Research Farm north of Charlottetown.

Fofana's work has long focused on genetic traits that will make potatoes more resistant to diseases, including common scab, and also better-looking and less susceptible to greening. Scab and greening are costly problems for potato growers.

But it is the search for a potato that better tolerates drought that is currently attracting attention from both the industry and the public.

A man crouches in a potato field holding a bright red bag with about a dozen potatoes to be planted.

"The climate is changing and unpredictable, and we have to adapt our crop to the changing climate," said Fofana. "We need to adapt some varieties to growing season length because climate is unpredictable.

"It can be short, can be long, depending [on] what will be happening. So we have to work hard to adapt our varieties to this changing environment."

DNA analysis

Fofana is particularly interested in varieties from parts of South America, where potatoes originated.

Two men looking at something in a lab

"It's a mountainous area, and this area is subjected to many other stresses — sometimes cold, sometimes drought — and these native potatoes have been evolving there for centuries," he said.

"They have different traits in term of disease resistance, but also drought resistance in some of the line."

When Fofana and his colleagues tested 384 samples, using genome DNA analysis, they found genetic DNA markers connected to plant growth and drought-resistant characteristics.

He said the work will continue on developing more drought-resistant characteristics. He plants about 50 genetic lines per season, so it's a long-term process.

Rows of potatoes planted by hand with the planting crew far off in the distance

"Depending on the weather, the weather will allow us to evaluate more," Fofana said. "We can also do some research indoors in a controlled environment to accelerate that, if weather is not co-operating. I hope that I will have resources to do that indoors, so that I can evaluate more."

Boiled, mashed or fries?

Fifty potatoes that have so far shown the most promise for yield and tuber quality have been sent to Fredericton for more evaluation by Dr. Benoit Bizimungu, a research scientist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research and development centre there.

A man wearing a dress shirt and pants stands next to a counter with potatoes on display

Part of his work involved teaming up with food scientists to look at the starch content and composition of the different genetic lines being studied.

They even did some cooking evaluation, said Bizimungu.

"That initial evaluation allowed [us] to see which one would be best for it: boiling or cooking or processing."

Dishes of potatoes being tested for how well they cook

Chip processing in particular demands only certain kinds of potatoes with the right amount of sugar and starch, Bizimungu said.

He said each new variety is tested for about 40 different traits.

"You need to pass a threshold for each of them, so really the challenge is to align all the traits into a winning variety," Bizimungu said. "It's part of the breeding game. We always try to improve based on what we have, and what is [its] potential."

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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