Infinite Possibilities

Researcher Shelley Jansky’s work in germplasm enhancement

Published online: Apr 27, 2017 Seed Potatoes
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This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Potato Grower

Potato growers (and really, anyone involved in production agriculture) are accustomed to a lack of appreciation from the larger population. At least once in a while, though, farmers will get a bone thrown to them. They consistently rank near the top of public-opinion polls regarding the most trusted professions. And that “God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl commercial is still providing plenty of glow for growers to bask in four years later.

But there are hardworking folks even further in the background than growers are. While the general public may be blissfully unaware of the agronomists, engineers and legions upon legions of researchers who make their delicious side of steak fries possible, those people can rest assured that their efforts aren’t unnoticed by growers.

However, if we’re being completely candid, how often does the phrase “germplasm enhancement” cross the average grower’s mind?

If Shelley Jansky isn’t at the very genesis of the U.S. potato supply chain, she is very near it. Jansky is a research geneticist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where her primary role is, you guessed it, potato germplasm enhancement. In a nutshell, that means she is responsible for not only finding new and as yet untapped potato varieties, but also for identifying which of those populations hold the most promise for incorporation into the commercial potato industry. Jansky, however, doesn’t shrink from such a tall order; rather, she embraces it.

“This really is my dream job. I just love getting up and coming to work every day,” she says. “In fact, I usually can’t let it go. It’s the last thing I’m thinking about when I go to sleep at night.”

As a young undergrad at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Jansky wasn’t entirely sure what career path she wanted to pursue. She was a biology major and intrigued by genetics, but was unsure of where that would take her. The answer came in an unlikely place.

While exploring her education and career options, the opportunity arose for Jansky to spend a semester on a marine biology research ship in the Caribbean. At one point, the ship landed on Roatán, an island off the northern coast of Honduras. The small village they were docked at had a village garden, and while strolling through it, Jansky had a bit of an epiphany.    

“As I was walking through there,” she recalls, “I thought, ‘This is where I belong.’ After all that time being at sea, that just felt like it.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Jansky returned to Stevens Point with a renewed vision of the direction she wanted her life to take. Her affinity for genetic study and her desire to work doing some kind of applied plant science naturally led her into the field of plant breeding. In quick succession, she finished her biology degree at Stevens Point, received master’s and doctorate degrees in plant breeding and genetics from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and began her career with a faculty position in North Dakota State University’s potato breeding program. After five years at NDSU, she returned to Stevens Point, this time in a teaching position. When school was not in session, Jansky filled her time working with other scientists on research projects.

“I always felt pulled to the research world,” says Jansky. “I love teaching. It was a great experience for me, but I always felt like I should be doing research.”

In 2004, after 14 years teaching at Stevens Point, Jansky was offered the chance to run the germplasm enhancement lab in Madison, and she jumped at the opportunity. The potato industry is the better for it.

The stated mission of Jansky’s lab is three-fold:

  1. Evaluate wild and cultivated potato relatives for traits of interest to scientists and the potato industry;
  2. Introgress those traits into adapted germplasm for ease of use;
  3. Develop germplasm resources for potato breeding and genetics programs.

Jansky is of the firm belief that it is not her role to simply provide potato breeders with gigantic piles of genetics; she and her team make an effort to identify a few promising clones breeders can use to develop certain traits, such as improved chip quality, skin set or pest resistance.

“I like to hone in on what I think might be most useful to the breeders,” Jansky says. “Knowing how demanding a cultivar breeding program is, I think it’s better for breeders to be able to focus in on five or ten parental clones and not have to do the selecting themselves.”

A large percentage of the material in Jansky’s Madison lab comes from wild relatives of domestic potatoes the team finds in Central and South America.

“Some are purely wild, growing like dandelions,” says Jansky. “So we’ve got this seed from this plant that was just growing on some hillside in Peru. How do we know what’s valuable in that? It’s a huge question, and one we sometimes struggle with.

“The good news is, any time we’ve looked for any trait in a wild species, we’ve found it.”

With the complete sequencing of the potato genome a couple years ago, Jansky and her colleagues are excited about what the future holds for the crop. With access to unprecedented understanding of genetics, computers’ statistical power, thermal imaging and other technologies, the possibilities for improving future potato crops seem almost infinite.

“It’s really interesting to try to imagine how these species evolved in the wild and how we can use them to improve cultivated potatoes,” says Jansky. “All the technology and information is coming together for us and giving us a much better picture of how we might be able to use these wild species in production agriculture.”