China: scientists discover Upotato No. 1 – an initiative to prevent Global Food Crisis

According to reports, Chinese scientists have developed a generation of “pure and fertile potato lines” with genome editing technologies in a groundbreaking achievement. The potato experiment was led by Huang Sanwen, a researcher with the Agricultural Genomics Institute at Shenzhen (AGIS) under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS). The researchers used genome design to transform potato breeding from a slow, non-accumulative mode into a fast-iterative one. The study titled “Genome design of hybrid potato” was published online in one of the world’s leading academic journals, Cell, on Thursday.

Potato Farming Issues

Huang, director-general of the AGIS, told China Media Group (CMG):

Unlike other crops, potato (the tuber crop) is clonally propagated rather than seed propagated. As a result, potato farming faces a range of problems, including long breeding cycles, low reproduction efficiency, diseases, and pest attack. Moreover, due to the complexity of its genome, the potato’s genetic improvement and the breeding process are very slow.

Zhang Chunzhi, first author of the research paper and member of the AGIS, said:

Many widely planted potato varieties around the world are hundreds of years old. However, a variety that lasts more than a hundred years does not mean it is perfect. In contrast, it’s difficult to breed, and people fail to cultivate a replacement.

Actions taken to Counter the Issues

To address the challenges of potato cultivation, Huang and his team initiated the “Upotato Plan” in 2015. The plan aims to replace vegetative reproduction with hybrid seeds via genome design and improve potato breeding speed and reproduction efficiency.

Talking about the plan, Huang said:

We must first solve the problem of self-incompatibility, which is that potatoes do not produce seeds after self-pollination. Through material selection and gene editing, we have successfully tackled the problem and produced seeds.

He further said:

Meanwhile, we have also discovered how to improve plant health and output. By genome design, we eliminated harmful mutations, aggregated good genes, and finally cultivated the potato variety called ‘Upotato No. 1.’ After testing, it has shown excellent performance.

According to the CAAS, this research is the world’s first application of “genome design” in potato breeding.

Trial 1 of the “Upotato No. 1” initiative

The first trial of the “Upotato No. 1” initiative was conducted in southwest China’s Yunnan Province last November. The output was found to be far beyond expectations this February.

Talking about the yield, Zhang said:

The yield of the first-generation hybrid potatoes was close to 3 tonnes per mu (about 45 tonnes per hectare), which equals the yield of the best potato varieties in the region. We now only need 2 grams of potato seeds for a one-mu land, compared to 200 kilograms of seed potatoes before, which greatly reduces the planting costs.

Zhang talked about the way forward and stated that the researchers will strengthen the technology research and development, to prepare for the industrialization of potato seeds.

Xiong Xingyao, vice president of Potato Professional Committee under the Crop Science Society of China said:

Potato is a cool-weather crop. The temperature in spring, summer, and autumn is too high in southern China for potatoes to grow, while the winter season in the southern mountainous areas and most other regions in China is suitable for potato growth. The ‘Upotato Plan’ has solved the problem of transferring seed potatoes among different regions. If we can make use of the idle winter fields in southern China, it may effectively help solve the problem of food security in China.

Upotato No. 1 receives International Recognition

Sofin Kamon, a member of the Europea. Academy of Sciences said:

This work is very important because it’s relevant to feeding the planet. What Professor Huang and his team did is they essentially reinvented the potato. They reinvented the crop almost from scratch. The hybrid potato and hybrid potato technology are really amazing in terms of taking the potato crop to the modern age of plant breeding.

Indeed this groundbreaking initiative is a huge achievement for the agriculture authorities of China. Many people are now hoping for the plan ahead to succeed so that China’s population can start depending on the “Upotato No. 1” initiative for survival.

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