Newswise — Potatoes are a multi-billion-dollar crop in the US. Potato harvests can be reduced by up to 80 percent because of disease caused by Potato virus Y (PVY) that attacks both the tubers and leaves. The virus is spread by aphids and transmitted via the seed potatoes that are used to propagate potatoes for cultivation. There are several resistant varieties of potato, but breeding potatoes and introducing the genes that underly this genetic resistance is slow, whereas the virus can rapidly change. 

Blake Meyers, PhD, member, Danforth Plant Science Center and professor, Division of Plant Sciences, University of Missouri - Columbia and his collaborator, Vincent Fondong, PhD, professor of biological sciences, at Delaware State University, have embarked on a new research project, to understand the PVY, which causes potato tuber diseases that decrease the yield and quality of that crop. 

The main objective of the research will be to use high-resolution, deep sequencing to better understand the mechanism through which the virus causes disease in potato tubers.

While Dr. Fondong – the principal investigator of the grant – has focused most of his 18-year research at Delaware State University on the impact of plant viruses on African crops such as the cassava plant, his current research seeks to address a serious crop virus problem in the United States.

“We will work to develop an innovative new biochemical pathway to manage this virus,”  Fondong said. “The importance of this novel pathway is that it would lay a foundation for the production of a non-GMO, virus-resistant potato that could prove to be more economically viable for the potato market.”

The research team will investigate the molecular basis of the endogenous defenses that potato uses against different strains of the PVY virus. This includes characterizing genes and RNAs that interact with the virus or are substantially dysregulated during infection. A second goal is to determine if they can develop, test, and potentially deploy new tools for resistance of potato to PVY, building on the knowledge of small RNAs that plant scientists have developed. 

In the last decade or two, work in the Meyers and Carrington Labs at the Danforth Center, and at various institutions has described RNA pathways in plants that yield "small RNAs". These small RNAs have the ability to suppress or "silence" viruses. 

“Our molecular understanding of these pathways is reasonably good, based on a lot of work by these labs, so we are now at the point at which we can start to build on this knowledge, adding tools to the toolbox that plant pathologists have to defend crops against pathogens,” Meyers said. “This is an exciting project, because it applies insights made from quite fundamental, basic research to see if we can have an impact on an important crop plant.”

The project recently awarded a four-year, $1.1M grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Register for reporter access to contact details

National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)