In research project DuRPh (2006-2016), potato cultivars were developed with a durable resistance against late blight.
Potato cultivation demands lots of pesticides, in comparison with other crops. Growers use these pesticides primarily against late blight (Phytophthora infestans). A conventional field with potatoes is treated with fungicides 10-15 times a season in the Netherlands. These pesticide applications are a burden to the environment. Moreover, late blight control is costly. Control costs for Dutch farmers are estimated to be € 130 million per annum, equal to about 20% of the production costs. Worldwide, the costs associated with late blight (yield losses and crop protection costs) equal billions!
In this 10-year research project, started in 2006, DuRPh aims to develop potato cultivars with a durable resistance against late blight. This will offer opportunities to drastically reduce pesticide use in the potato cultivation.
The advantages to society of the expected project results are:
- less potato production costs
- less environmental burden
- a stimulant to fundamental research
- maintenance of competitive abilities and employment in the planting material production sector
DuRPh researchers want to provide potato cultivars with additional resistance genes originating from other potato plants, such as wild relatives, through genetic modification. In principle, you could incorporate these genes in potato cultivars through crossing.
However, when crossing with wild relatives, also many unwanted 'wild' properties come along, such as ugly tubers and bitter tastes. It then takes a breeder many years of backcrossing with the cultured potato to obtain a useful variety. With genetic modification, this problem does not exist, because only the desired gene is transferred. This is why the method of genetic modification was chosen in this project.
Cisgenic marker-free potatoes
Inorporating genes from related species that can also be crossed - in this case genes from wild potato plants - is called cisgenic genetic modification or cisgenesis. This is different from transgenic genetic modification, whereby potato plants are provided with genes from another species, a tomato plant for example. In the DuRPh project, we work with cisgenesis. The new resistant potatoes at the end also do not receive any so-called genetic markers. The test to assess whether the modification is successful will be done without such markers.
The use of genes from wild potatoes is not new. Various resistance genes have been crossed into commercial varieties in the past. However, those resistances have been broken sooner or later due to the development of new varieties of late blight.
The DuRPh team is tracking new genes in wild potato cultivars. To ensure that the new resistances are not easily broken by late blight, the team works with cassettes: sets of smartly combined genes that are inserted at the right moment in the right cultivars. As the composition of flu vaccins changes annually, also these cassettes will be alternated regularly.
Moreover, the DuRPh team looks to the best possible use of different sets of resistance genes in space and time through a mix of field and simulation studies. The calculations are being conducted with variables such as distance between fields, field size, weather and disease control strategy. The most promising options are tested in multiple year field experiments.
Researchers of Wageningen UR implement this project commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. The Fund for Strengthening the Economic Structure (FES) finances the project.
The Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs has launched a committee supervising the DuRPh project with representatives from different policy departments and the private sector.
Research on the control of late blight has been conducted for many years in the Netherlands, among others, under the umbrella of the Phytophthora master plan. DuRPh offers the opportunity, together with the master plan, to achieve a sustainable solution more rapidly.
The 'Integrale Nota Biotechnologie (2000)' has become the starting point of the Dutch policy on biotechnology. The motto of this policy is: 'Use opportunities responsibly and carefully'. A guiding principle in this policy is that biotechnology can contribute to the Dutch economy and to sustainable farming. DuRPh aims to use the opportunities offered by biotechnology for the development of a more sustainable potato cultivation.
DuRPh is a project that mainly contains scientific efforts. In this domain we expect most of the results. A considerable proportion of its resources, however, are dedicated to communication and interaction with society about the project and its objectives.
What happens with the scientific results?
DuRPh researchers publish this knowledge in scientific journals, in professional journals for growers and in other easily accessible media. This knowledge is freely available.
What happens with intellectual property?
When possible and judged necessary researchers try to protect genes and background techniques. One of the methods we use is applying for patents. Genes isolated within DuRPh are patented by Wageningen UR.
Possessing patents allows Wageningen UR itself to determine when and by which companies, institutions or persons these isolated genes or techniques can be used to insert into potato genotypes for the development of new varieties.
Does everybody have access to this protected material?
Yes. Principally we foresee exploitation through non-exclusive licenses to avoid the possible creation of a monopoly by only one or a few parties. Such monopoly would jeopardize a wider use and e.g. application by small and medium enterprises.
How about poor countries?
Wageningen UR is of the opinion that as many parties as possible should have access to the protected knowledge. In order to contribute to food supply and food security Wageningen UR applies a so called Humanitarian Use License. Under such license poor countries may get available resistance genes given certain circumstances and conditions, to introduce into local varieties.