When most people think of potatoes, the word research does not usually follow. But with their Mr. Potatohead mascot watching over the lab, the University of Nevada, Reno’s plant biology tag team, Dylan Kosma and Patricia Santos, are searching for ways to reduce potato crop losses during storage.
The University’s Kosma-Santos lab, in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, was recently awarded a grant worth $1.37 million by the National Science Foundation to investigate the molecular genetics and biochemistry that underlie potato losses during storage. As the No. 1 vegetable crop in the U.S. and a top five crop for the state of Nevada, potato crop losses can be economically devastating to growers and the potato industry as a whole. A large portion of these crop losses are due to factors such as rapid water loss and disease while potatoes are in storage.
In 2013, about 33 percent of the U.S. crop was lost, which equated to $1.2 billion in lost profits for growers. Kosma, an assistant biochemistry professor, and Santos, an assistant research professor, are focusing their research on reducing this number.
“Even a 5 percent reduction in potato losses during storage would improve the economic return for the producers and the potato industry by $170 million,” says Kosma.
The team’s research delves into comprehending how different potato varieties can have different storage lives. They are using one variety that stores very well and another that stores very poorly to understand the molecular basis of this differential storage capacity. From a basic science perspective, no one has yet figured this out.
Specifically, Kosma is interested in the corky lipid polymer that comprises a large proportion of the skin known as suberin. Suberin can be found in nearly every plant, and although it is widespread, there is still little known about its makeup and function.
Kosma and Santos want people to know that potatoes do not just go straight from the field to the store. Potatoes are grown and harvested in the fall and kept in cold storage until sold and distributed. The problem occurs when potatoes are not stored properly, which then impacts profits.
When potatoes are harvested in the field, they tend to get damaged and form scabs or wound periderm that prevent the sugars and water from coming out and also keep bacteria and fungi from getting in. This wound-healing tissue is made up of suberin. These are the rough raises we tend to see on potatoes from the supermarket. It is important for potatoes to form this wound-repairing tissue to prolong storage life.
The intent of this research is to ultimately improve how potatoes heal with wound suberin deposition and how to, in turn, improve their lasting storability.
A native of Illinois, Kosma showed an interest in plant biology from a young age. Although he jokes that he was not tremendously influenced by potatoes growing up, he always enjoyed going outside to forage wild foods and plants for both fun and to satisfy his general curiosity about the natural world. He received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in plant biology from Southern Illinois University, and furthered his education at Purdue University, where he received his doctorate degree. His post-doctorate work led him to Michigan State University, where he met Santos, his wife and research partner. Santos has an emphasis in plant pathology with specific interests in plant-microbe interactions.
Both are interested in plant stress tolerance in relation to the environment and found that Nevada suited those research interests. They have been a part of UNR’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for two years. The two are extremely passionate about their work, and this project is something that had been stewing in Kosma’s thoughts well before the couple’s move to Nevada.
“In Michigan, two years prior to moving here, Dylan was already talking about writing a project about potatoes and how cool it would be,” says Santos.
Since then, their research team has grown to include Karen Sclauch, a specialist in bioinformatics at UNR; Dave Douches, a potato breeder out of Michigan State University; and Ray Hammerschmidt, a plant pathologist from Michigan State. They have one graduate student and numerous undergraduates working with them in their lab.
The $1.37 million National Science Foundation grant will keep this research going for the next four years.
Source: University of Nevada, Reno