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

Dr. Helen Tai points across the front lawn at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Fredericton. “That was my sliding hill over there,” she says, recalling when her father, Dr. George Tai, started working as a potato breeding research scientist at AAFC when she was only five years old. Now, Dr. Tai is making her own waves in the potato world as a potato genomics research scientist at AAFC. She is working with partners at the Potato Research Centre and across the world to develop solutions that will allow the industry to more quickly react to market changes and environmental challenges.

Dr. Tai is unlocking the secrets of the potato to take some of the guess work out of crop management. She and her team are developing prediction and monitoring tools for better crop management. Her team is delving deep into the potato genome to understand what a plant is experiencing, and hoping to use that information to help growers optimize fertilizer application and storage conditions. “By using the plant’s own natural responses to stress through changing its gene expression,” says Tai, “we are hoping to capture those specific genes and use them as indicators to tell you when to add fertilizer, where to add fertilizer, and when to change your storage management.”

Tai is also working with potato breeders to develop tools that will greatly accelerate the breeding process, allowing them to better respond to the needs of the industry. Plant breeding is currently done by selecting plants with desirable traits through visual inspections and disease testing, then planting and replanting; a process that takes 10-15 years. Tai and her team are hoping to develop a DNA sequence test to identify early on if a plant has a genetic background that will produce a good potato. “If we can get a DNA based test, then we can actually test for a whole bunch of traits just by collecting the DNA”.

When asked about the future of potatoes, Dr. Tai sees climate change producing unique challenges that will require the industry to be proactive. She also sees a demand for potato starch in industrial applications like bioplastics and biomaterials. She’s hoping the tools being developed by her research teams will help industry stay ahead of the game.

Dr. Tai and her colleagues at the Potato Research Centre are always looking for new collaborations and projects.  “We want to enhance our participation in the research community”, she says. “We want to let the stakeholders know where we are in our research, and where they may be able to find something useful”.

Read about other Potato Research Centre scientists Dr. David De Koeyer and Dr. Claudia Goyer.

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