Part of the "Under the Microscope" Series admin December 12, 2014


Dr. David De Koeyer, a geneticist and bioinformatician at AAFC’s Potato Research Centre, has been working with the potato industry on variety improvement and new technologies for nearly 15 years. His work demonstrates how Big Data and IT combined with biotechnology can provide new solutions for agriculture. “It’s been a great experience,” he said. “My research is targeting the needs of the industry. We’re trying to develop better varieties to meet the industry’s demands and try to do this in a more effective and efficient manner.”

Potato is a major world food crop and an increasingly important food source in developing nations. Cultivated potatoes are very susceptible to pests and pathogens, so it is important to understand the potato genome and physiology to develop tools to improve the potato.

De Koeyer works closely with the breeders, microbiologists and technicians at the Centre to conduct the genetic sequencing that informs and improves the process of selecting parent plants for potato breeding. “We characterize the genotypes of the potato varieties,” he said, “and try to identify genes that are involved with specific traits using DNA markers.” He and Dr. Helen Tai are working to identify the genetic markers that influence potato behaviour in storage, a big issue in the industry as potatoes can change in ways that processors don’t like.

Dr. Claudia Goyer is working with Dr. De Koeyer to explore how pathogens affect gene expression, as pathogens can be devastating to the industry. The work that he and his colleagues are doing serves to identify potential parents much earlier in the breeding cycle. Not only does this have major industrial application for potato farmers today, this method of selection will allow the industry to adapt more readily to changing environmental conditions in the future.

Since the potato genome sequence was released in 2011, De Koeyer has been using the reference genome to help breeders sequence new varieties of potato. “This data is very complex so we need to condense it and transfer it into a very user-friendly format that breeders and other scientists can use,” he said. This is where De Koeyer’s role as a bioinformatician becomes particularly important. It also allows for broader collaboration across borders and sectors. “I think especially now as we go to more DNA-based technology and information-based technology, some of the principles can easily be applied across crops and across species.” De Koeyer is already working with potato research centres in Peru and Columbia to better understand how potatoes grow at different latitudes, and he sees potential applications for this work for other agricultural crops and other industries including aquaculture.

“We have very highly qualified personnel here in Fredericton,” says Dr. De Koeyer. He and his colleagues were able to meet some of the downstream recipients of their work at Stakeholder Day, an exclusive industry event held in November. “I looked at this as a very good opportunity to share with them how we possibly could work with them to address their needs.”

By: Shannon Carmont, BioNB Communications Intern

Read about other Potato Research Centre scientists Dr. Helen Tai and Dr. Claudia Goyer.

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