New Face in the Field

Published online: Mar 02, 2022 Articles, Seed Potatoes Sarah Ehrlich
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This column, written on behalf of the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, appears in the March 2020 issue of Potato Grower.

The Colorado potato industry is excited to welcome a new addition to its plant breeding efforts: research scientist Jessica Chitwood-Brown, formerly of the University of Florida.

Originally from the River Valley of Arkansas, Chitwood-Brown has been involved in agriculture her entire life and will now be Colorado State University’s newest potato breeder. Her journey started at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith with a biology degree. She then went to work as an intern for Winfield, a company that supplies seed and chemical to row crop farmers.

While working for an agricultural co-op, Chitwood-Brown met an agricultural extension station director who encouraged her to apply to the horticulture program at University of Arkansas. She had never heard about plant breeding but enjoyed genetics and gave it a shot. She worked with spinach and cowpea, and learned quickly that research can cost a lot of money.

“I asked what crops get more money for research and it was potato and tomato,” Chitwood-Brown says. “So, I found the tomato breeding program at the University of Florida, and it was one of the few public programs left. It’s been a lot of fun and has been a time where I got to decide what I really wanted to do with plant breeding.”

Chitwood-Brown earned her Ph.D. in horticulture from the University of Florida, and cohorts encouraged her to apply for the potato breeder position at Colorado State University. She saw it aligned with everything she wanted to do: implementing molecular tools in a breeding program and reducing grower inputs. She explained genomic selection is becoming the norm in breeding programs and is a great method to drive genetic improvement.

Adam Heuberger, professor and researcher of plant genomics at CSU shared his excitement about Chitwood-Brown joining.

“We are thrilled to bring Dr. Chitwood-Brown to the CSU potato team,” says Heuberger. “She brings new experience in molecular breeding and pathology from her previous work in tomato, and fits nicely with CSU scientists improving potato agronomics, physiology and nutrition. We are excited for her to write the next chapter of Colorado potatoes.”

Chitwood-Brown is looking forward to working more with the Solanum plant family and is familiar with diseases that impact both tomatoes and potatoes. Potatoes contain four sets of chromosomes per cell instead of tomato’s two, which can give breeders more variation to capitalize on.

“There are different ways to play with genes with four copies,” Chitwood-Brown says. “Yes, there’s a level of greater difficulty than just two copies, but you can still change the way a gene is expressed, and maybe get more phenotypes out of it.”

A challenge Chitwood-Brown sees in every aspect of genetics is balancing wanted versus unwanted traits, and their correlation.

“Some things are just biologically limiting,” she says. “There are traits that are linked in such a way and we will have to find a balance. That’s how breeding work is, and it is always a challenge no matter what crop you are working in.”

Chitwood-Brown’s goals involve disease resistance and water use efficiency. She believes these two issues are important for growers in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and around the world, especially in places where potatoes are a primary dietary staple. Potatoes can be produced relatively affordably around the world, and they provide some of the highest caloric and nutritional values of any crop.

“Unfortunately, some of these places that are the least developed are also the places struggling with climate impact,” Chitwood-Brown says. “This kind of research is going to be really critical for feeding people. Most of us [in the U.S.] don’t experience hunger firsthand, but it’s a big problem.”

Chitwood-Brown says teaching has been the best and most fulfilling part of her journey so far. One of her primary goals as an applied plant breeder will be training the next generation of plant breeders. Besides teaching students, she is excited to work in the field with farmers, sharing knowledge and building relationships.

Chitwood-Brown is looking forward to her program satisfying the needs of Colorado growers, and having each one grow Colorado-bred potatoes. She plans to do this through important conversations that create understanding of growers’ needs, and creating varieties that match industry needs.

“We wouldn’t have civilization in the way that we do without established agriculture,” Chitwood-Brown said. “For thousands of years people have been selecting plants that make better crops to feed and clothe people. Genetics are the underlying cause, the blueprint.”