The public event at which Wageningen UR presented its research on phytophthora (late blight) resistance in potatoes, on August 15, 2013, attracted many visitors. They were informed about two research projects aimed at introducing resistance genes to potatoes - the one via genetic modification, the other through organic plant breeding. Researchers answered all their questions.
Unique partnership phytophthora researchers
"How come phytophthora resistance can now be cross-bred into potatoes, whereas this was never successful in the past?", a visitor asked Edith Lammerts van Bueren, project leader of BioImpuls. "Because we work closely with researchers in the DuRPh project, which introduce resistance genes in potato through genetic modification", Lammerts van Bueren replied. "At BioImpuls we only use organic methods to develop potatoes that are resistant to late blight - and which consumers like to eat, of course - but we also make good use of the knowledge developed within the DuRPh project. For example, to find a molecular marker costs about 100,000 euros. We do not have the means to fund that, but DuRPh does."
Why different budgets?
In response to that answer, someone else wanted to know why the project Durable Resistance to Phytophthora (DuRPh) has a budget of one million euros per year, while BioImpuls, using only biological methods to achieve resistance, has "only" 200,000 euros per year at its disposal. Anton Haverkort, DuRPh project manager, said: "Firstly, in the Netherlands organic potatoes are grown on less than 1 percent of the total potato acreage, so you could argue that BioImpuls has relatively more money available. Secondly, the techniques we use for genetic modification require far more capital than cross-breeding through pollination." He added that although the research is expensive, installing cassettes with resistance genes from wild potato species into already existing potato varieties via genetic modification will be much cheaper for companies than breeding for decades to develop new, phytophthora resistant potato varieties that also have other requirements (taste, colour, and so on) that consumers demand.
Many questions about genetic modification
In a potato field where DuRPh and BioImpuls do their research, the many interested citizens saw with their own eyes how effective it is to introduce resistance genes from wild potato species in culture potatoes. Potatoes where R-genes were introduced were still green, while others had died. All visitors were also convinced about the importance of protecting potato against late blight. Potato is the third food crop in the world and 1,400 tons fungicide are sprayed annually in the Netherlands to fight phytophthora. If the self-defense of the plant is improved, pesticide-use can be reduced by 80 per cent. But not everyone was convinced that it was desirable to make use of genetic modification to achieve this. People had many questions about the technology. How does genetic modification actually work, what is known about possible risks, how long will it take before the fungus that causes late blight manages to break the resistance? The researchers answered all these questions in great detail.