Published online: Sep 30, 2008 Alan Harman
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Michigan State University has been awarded a four-year, $5.4-million grant to improve the quality, yield, drought tolerance and disease resistance of potatoes and tomatoes.

The grant is the largest of the nine awarded by the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service National Research (CSREES) Initiative Plant Genome Program and represented more than half of the $9.4 million award total.

The project aims to incorporate emerging DNA sequence data with basic research data to improve potato and tomato varieties.

Co-led by MSU crop and soil scientist and Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) researcher Dave Douches and MSU plant biologist Robin Buell, the project brings together specialists from MSU, Ohio State University, Cornell University, University of California at Davis and Oregon State University.

"Potatoes and tomatoes are important vegetable crops that are challenged by disease and pests," Douches said. "Enhancing our ability to tackle these problems from a genetic angle will improve the quality of produce for consumers and processors and provide potato and tomato growers with varieties that are more pest- and disease-resistant."

MAES director Steve Pueppke says research funding at this level is essential to improving agricultural efficiency and sustainability and addressing critical and emerging national priorities and needs.

The MSU program will be administered under the Cooperative Agriculture Project (CAP), a USDA-CSREES program that funds multiyear, multi-institutional collaborative projects. Past CAP programs have focused on rice, wheat, barley and conifers.

"This is the first nongrain/forestry project funded under the CAP program and the first project that's working on two different species," Buell said.

"The potato is the most important vegetable worldwide and the Solanaceae family - which includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants - is the most important vegetable family period, so this represents a very important and significant investment by the USDA."

The project team also will develop a course for graduate students, offer workshops and practical training for plant breeders, and create online networking resources for plant breeders, seed industry professionals, extension specialists and practitioners.

The MAES is one of the largest research organizations at MSU. Founded in 1988, the organization funds the work of more than 300 scientists in six colleges at MSU to enhance agriculture, natural resources and families and communities in Michigan.