Advances in biotechnology such as DNA sequencing have helped speed the pace of plant breeding in many food crops, but applying these tools to the potato, which has an extra set of chromosomes, has been a bit more difficult.
“Molecular markers haven’t had much impact on potato breeding thus far, but I think that’s going to change soon thanks to a new technology called genomic selection,” says Jeff Endelman, who joins the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s horticulture department on July 1 to head the potato breeding program.
Endelman, a plant breeder with expertise in statistical genetics, helped launch pilot projects for genomic selection in wheat, corn and cassava when he was a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University. This powerful approach couples historical crop data with DNA marker information to make statistical predictions about the likely success of potential new varieties—before they are tested in the field. Now he’s eager to apply this approach to potato.
“My vision is that, in the near future, every promising potato in the breeding program will get thousands of DNA markers sequenced,” he says. “I foresee this becoming the most cost-effective way to manage our breeding program.”
Endelman was hired through a partnership between the university and the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association. Taking advantage of a new option to fund UW professorships, the WPVGA agreed to provide $370,000 over the course of five years to support Endelman’s position and research. It’s a good investment for the growers, says WPVGA executive director Duane Maatz.
“The breeding program is critical to us. New varieties and improvements in existing varieties come from this important work,” Maatz says. “Adding Jeff to the UW’s research team will help us secure a positive future, achieving better methods of production to address consumer needs, economics and environmentally-friendly farming practices.”
The gift establishes Endelman as the WPVGA Professor of Plant Breeding. While the gift doesn’t cover all of Endelman’s salary and research costs, it’s what made the position possible, says Kate VandenBosch, Dean of the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
“This is a new and exciting kind of private-public partnership that marks an important milestone in our potato breeding program. The WPVGA’s gift will ensure the continuation of Wisconsin’s strength and leadership in the potato industry,” VandenBosch says.
Endelman brings a unique set of skills and experiences to the job, including two sets of advanced degrees. First he earned degrees in physics and bioengineering. Then, after participating in a Community Supported Agriculture program, he fell in love with farming and completed two year-long apprenticeships on small farms in California. This inspired him to go back to earn a master’s in plant science from Utah State University and a doctorate in crop science from Washington State University.
He also brings a strong interest in getting farmers involved in the plant breeding effort. As a Ph.D. student working on barley, Endelman established several variety trials in the fields of cooperating farmers. Those collaborations gave farmers an early look at new material from the breeding program while providing valuable data about how varieties performed in a wider range of environments.
Endelman looks forward to using the needs and experiences of Wisconsin’s potato growers to guide the university’s potato program.
“We have a very involved set of growers in Wisconsin,” he says. “That was one of the reasons I accepted this position.”
Endelman was the unanimous choice of a hiring committee that represented both the industry and the university, says UW-Madison horticulture chair Irwin Goldman.
Endelman is a “perfect fit,” agrees Bob Guenthner, a seed potato grower from Antigo and WPVGA member who was on the hiring committee. “It’s our legacy, our tradition that we have strong, innovative potato researchers at Wisconsin,” he says. “We are overjoyed that Jeff accepted.”