Researchers turn to gene editing to make potatoes commercially viable

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

B-hive Innovations is turning to gene editing to produce potatoes that meet consumer demands. Image: Getty, J Studios
B-hive Innovations is turning to gene editing to produce potatoes that meet consumer demands. Image: Getty, J Studios

Related tags R&D

A UK-based research team, led by B-hive Innovations, is turning to gene editing to produce potatoes that are easier to cook in a bid to compete with quicker-cooking alternatives like rice and pasta.

Coming in on the heels of new legislation that allows the commercial development of gene edited crops, the project will focus on two key goals: reducing bruising-related discolouration; and making potatoes quicker to cook.

The new research project, called TuberGene, is funded as part of UKRI’s National Engineering Biology Programme. Also part of the scientific team delivering the research are potato processor Branston, the James Hutton Institute and James Hutton Ltd.

It’s hoped that these improvements will improve potato quality, cut down on food waste and meet the evolving needs of consumers.

Securing long-term viability

Andy Gill, general manager of B-hive Innovations, said: "The UK potato industry is facing significant challenges, and it's crucial that we find innovative solutions to ensure its long-term viability. This project represents a major step forward in our efforts to address issues such as bruising-related losses and changing consumer preferences."

A key part of the project involves sequencing the genome of the Maris Piper potato, one of the most popular varieties in the UK. B-hive said this foundational work would pave the way for future targeted gene editing to enhance other desirable traits.

Rob Hancock, research scientist at the James Hutton Institute, added: "Gene editing and other precision breeding technologies offer unprecedented opportunities to rapidly enhance the traits of potatoes, meeting the need to quickly respond to the changing preferences of consumers.

“By targeting specific genes responsible for traits like bruising susceptibility and cooking times, we can create varieties that meet the needs of both growers and consumers."

Meeting commercial specifications

The UK potato sector produces around five million tonnes of potatoes each year but faces significant hurdles, including producing a significant number of potatoes that don’t meet commercial specifications, costing millions of pounds annually.

Additionally, changing consumer preferences have caused fresh potato sales to gradually decline, as people opt for quicker-cooking alternatives like rice and pasta.

Barbara Correia, principal research scientist at B-hive said: “This project leverages the bioinformatics expertise in our business and the genome sequencing allows us to build a pipeline to address other issues in potato farming, such as disease resistance, as we move towards the creation of a Super Spud.

“It also means that we can apply our skills more easily to other crops, thereby helping more of the UK’s fresh produce sector and safeguarding global food security.”

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