Research Award 2022 for pioneering potato breeding

Published on
March 9, 2022

The Research Award 2022 of the University Fund Wageningen (UFW) has been awarded to Ernst-Jan Eggers, PhD student at the Laboratory of Plant Breeding and researcher at Solynta. He won the prize for his research into the Sli gene in diploid potato breeding, a gene responsible for the plant's ability to pollinate itself. His research was published in the renowned scientific journal Nature Communications in 2021 with the title: “Neofunctionalisation of the Sli gene leads to self-compatibility and facilitates precision breeding in potato”.

Thanks to Eggers, it is now known exactly how the Sli gene is expressed in diploid potatoes. Due to the presence of the Sli gene in diploid potatoes, a plant breeder can make an inbred line through repeated self-pollinations and can cross it with other inbred lines that have other good qualities. This creates a hybrid variety that is resistant to, for example, drought or certain diseases, or that contains a high nutritional value. Such a hybrid variety can then be marketed in one of the many potato-growing areas in the world.

The award ceremony took place during the symposium preceding the 104th Dies Natalis of Wageningen University & Research (WUR) on 9 March. President of the jury Rumyana Karlova, assistant professor at the Laboratory of Plant Physiology, presented the prize. Eggers received a certificate, together with a replica of the statue 'De Wageningse Boom' and a cash prize of €2,500.

Diploid potatoes

Common potato varieties in Europe are tetraploid, meaning there are four copies of each chromosome. In traditional breeding, such tetraploid varieties are crossed, resulting in enormous genetic variation in the offspring. It then takes years to select the best plants from these, which can eventually form a new variety.

The Wageningen breeding company Solynta has developed a method with which diploid inbred lines are obtained, with two identical sets of chromosomes. Crucial in this technology is the development of inbred lines that are created through repeated self-pollination. For a long time it was thought that this was impossible in potato because diploid potato cannot fertilize itself. At least, until Solynta crossed a diploid potato with a wild variety, so that this cross did receive the gene that caused self-pollination, the Sli gene.

Ernst-Jan Eggers then examined in detail where on the chromosomes the Sli gene was present in these diploid potatoes. In close collaboration with the Plant Breeding Department of WUR, he cloned this gene and showed that this gene is only expressed in the pollen grain if an extra piece of DNA is present in the regulatory signals of this gene.

Jury report

The jury was not only impressed by the scientific quality of the research, but also by the major social impact. The potato is the third most important food crop in the world and hybrid breeding will stimulate the development of new cultivars in this crop with new properties, such as resilience to climate change, and with high yields.

Another major advantage is that seed can be produced instead of using tubers for cultivation of hybrid potato varieties. Seeds can be more easily stored and transported to potato growers in different parts of the world, giving these varieties another important contribution to global food security.

About the Research Award

The University Fund Wageningen annually presents the Research Award to young scientists (under the age of 40) who have published an excellent and original scientific article in the calendar year prior to the award year. Judges for the 2022 award were: Rumyana Karlova, PhD, jury president; Prof. Erik van der Linden, Dr. Folkert Boersma and Dr. Irene Sánchez-Andrea, winner of the Research Award 2021.