2011 Researcher of the Year: David Douches

Collaborating to build a better potato

Published in the February 2012 Issue Published online: Feb 06, 2012 David Douches, MSU professor
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"Marker Data. Dave Douches and Robin Buell, MSU Bioinformaticist, examine genetic marker data from the Illumina iScan SNP genotyping platform that has been generated through the USDA/AFRI-funded SolCAP project. The SolCAP Infinium SNP array examines 8,300 SNPs in three days.
"E arly Generation. Dave Douches, Joe Coombs, Greg Steere and Whitney Feltner evaluate the early generation plots at the Lake City Research Center. This site is the primary breeding and seed production site for the breeding program.
"Plot Harvesting. Bruce Sackett, Montcalm Research Center farm manager, drives the MSU potato plot harvester in the variety trials. The Montcalm Research Center is the primary research site in the major potato producing county of Michigan.
"L ab Inoculation. Potato late blight tuber tests are being set up in the Kirk lab. Greg Steere and Rob Schafer are working with the undergraduate student workers (Stephanie Andersen, Matt Zuehlke, Esther Gachango and Nate Schafer) to inoculate with the Phytophthora infestans isolates.
"S cab Plots. Dave Douches, Ali McKenna and Matt Zuehlke rate scab plots at the Montcalm Research Center as part of genetic mapping study.

Potato breeder David S. Douches, Potato Grower magazine's 2011 Researcher of the Year, is an optimist who often says, "Boy, things are so exciting!" and-by his own confession-he's been saying that, every so often, for almost 25 years.

"There's a lot of promise with the technologies that are out there, and some of them are maturing into great tools," said Douches, who heads the potato breeding and genetics program in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU). "Right now we are in such exciting times for tackling some of our potato growing problems."

Douches, also an MSU AgBioResearch scientist, joined MSU in 1987 with a passion for decreasing the agricultural constraints associated with producing potatoes and as a scientist open to the new tools being developed. Since then, he established program partnerships reaching across interdisciplinary areas at MSU and other universities, and with Michigan potato growers and processors.

As the only full-time MSU faculty member focused on potato research, Douches spearheads the development of varieties that position potato growers to grow the best potatoes for their markets. Potato varieties are very difficult to breed, Douches noted.

"Whenever you create a cross, you have created a whole new combination of plants," he explained. "Potatoes don't breed true. Every variety is a unique creation."

AgBioResearch scientist C. Robin Buell is a vital partner in Douches' work. Buell, an associate professor of plant biology who joined MSU in 2007, has expertise in genomics, bioinformatics and sequencing.

"Previously, people made crosses and then they would wait for the growing season to get the plant or tuber and see what phenotype they had," Buell said. "Then they would go to the next generation. They were essentially working blind, and it was a time-consuming process. With new technology, we now can do the work in a short period of time in a lab and accelerate the process of making crosses and selecting the ones needed to make the final variety."

In 2008, a project supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Applied Plant Genomics Coordinated Agriculture Program of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture was funded at MSU. Douches is the director and Buell one of the co-directors. The project also involves researchers from Cornell University, the Ohio State University, the University of California-Davis and Oregon State University.

The project, called SolCAP (Solanaceae Coordinated Agricultural Project) focuses on the two most important vegetable crops in the Solanaceae family: potatoes and tomatoes. The idea is to link researchers from public and private institutions and related industries so that they can collectively focus on translating genomic advances to crop breeding programs.

"Twenty years ago, we were developing the first genetic maps in potatoes with the promise we could map traits, but the techniques were cumbersome and had time and cost limitations," Douches says. "Now with the technology advances, we can do so much more. We are closer to the promise of using genetic markers in our breeding program. That has come about through SolCAP."

The project already has yielded major accomplishments, including the development of tools that allow for easy use of genomics in breeding approaches. These tools are being applied to look at past breeding decisions and will eventually be used to accelerate breeding decisions.

Douches also collaborates closely with Willie Kirk, an AgBioResearch plant pathologist and Extension specialist. Much of Kirk's work is focused on potato diseases, especially late blight. Due to climate conditions, Michigan potato fields are a prime target for this disease.

However, it is possible to breed potatoes with late blight resistance as well as resistance to other diseases. That's where Kirk's input is helpful to Douches in the breeding process. In addition, Kirk supervises field trials of resistant varieties developed by Douches.

MSU is one of the few places in the United States that does late blight inoculated trials. The controlled epidemics of late blight help researchers see what pest management tools work and how resistant breeds can withstand the pathogen.

In addition to his work with Buell, Kirk and other MSU colleagues, Douches has a close relationship with the Michigan Potato Industry Commission (MPIC). Ben Kudwa has been the executive director of MPIC since 1986, just before Douches came to MSU.

"My first assignment was to ensure that a new potato breeder was hired at MSU," Kudwa says. "MPIC offered MSU start-up funds for the breeding work when MSU replaced a breeder who had retired. Dr. Douches was a perfect fit for the position.

"His work in plant breeding, genomics and coordinating field trials across the country on behalf of the U.S. Potato Board is the type of work the potato industry highly values," he continues. "With fewer people available to do potato research, it's necessary for those left to take their work to the end user-the grower-and that is exactly what Dr. Douches has been able to accomplish."

Douches' partnerships also extend to growers and processors. Brian Sackett is a fifth-generation potato grower. He and his dad, Alan, and brother, Jeff, are partners in Sackett Potatoes in Michigan.

"MSU has done a tremendous job in helping with pest problems, such as the potato beetle and with chemical resistance problems," Sackett says. "Dave has done a good job of developing varieties that growers need and has been especially helpful in developing varieties that are resistant to scab. That's a big problem in Michigan."

In addition to the establishment of numerous potato varieties to be used for processed potatoes, such as potato chips, Douches has also developed varieties for the fresh market. These include Beacon Chipper, Jacqueline Lee, Liberator, and Missaukee and Purple Haze, released by MSU in 2010.

"We select these varieties for their culinary quality and for their resistance to pests," Douches said. "The growers benefit because they can manage the crop better with less reliance on chemical protection and have a better quality potato. Over time, we have developed a good selection for growers to choose from to fit their markets and their production challenges. There's a lot more we still can do, and with the tools we now have, I'm confident that we can do even better." 

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