Spud-tastic: New lab grows UI program

Mar. 30—The health and success of Idaho's staple crop is receiving renewed support with the launch of the new University of Idaho Seed Potato Germplasm Laboratory.

The $5.6 million lab opened its doors to the community with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday, complete with potato-themed desserts and guided tours of the new space.

The Seed Potato Germplasm Program aims to "establish, maintain and distribute disease-free germplasm and mini-tubers for domestic and international seed potato growers and researchers," according to the program's website. The laboratory moved in November into the new facility, where researchers and students could continue advancing their work on various potato health and growing techniques, including virus cleanup, said Jen Root, senior director of development at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

The new facility will allow program director Jenny Durrin and her student employees to triple their yearly production as demands for disease-free germplasm and mini-tubers increase, said Michael Parrella, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

The Seed Potato Germplasm Program began in 1983 as a service for potato crops. Upon joining UI, Durrin's work helped the program flourish and it started to multiply more plantlets, treat new strains, and get more germplasm to growers and researchers around the world. With this advancement, the program outgrew its previous facility, located on the top floor of the UI Agricultural Science Building, calling for a new location.

"We produce 30% of the U.S. production potatoes, but it's not just that volume," Parrella said while outlining the new lab's educational and financial development opportunities at the grand opening. "It's the quality that we produce, and where does that quality start? It starts in a germplasm facility. And when I saw the (previous) facilities on the top floor, I realized that we had some work to do. Would we possibly build a facility that we can be proud of ... one that reflects the quality and the scope of that of the potato industry."

Rather than have the Seed Potato Germplasm Laboratory in southern Idaho, which is the hub of potato production in the state, UI decided to place the facility in Moscow. Parrella said this decision came about because a primary goal of the program is to identify and clean plant material to address plant virus cleanup and create healthy new varieties — and sanitation is a big part of reaching that goal. In order to avoid potato crop and research specimen contamination that may occur in southern Idaho, the facility was constructed in northern Idaho, where grains are the primary crop.

Students in the program are taught tissue culture techniques and micropropagation, along with virus cleanup, Durrin said. Virus cleanup works by using a chemical that "inhibits virus replication." By micropropagating the plant, Durrin and researchers are able to outrun the virus replication.

"What it does is allows a grower to start with a healthy seed," said Lorie Ewing, former director of the program. "If you don't have a healthy seed, then they're much more susceptible to all the environmental detrimental conditions."

Durrin works with 300 potato varieties at a given time, and distributes 25,000 plants worldwide annually, Parrella said.

"This laboratory stands in testimony to a partnership among state and federal governments, Idaho agriculture and citizens at the University of Idaho here," Parrella said. "The University of Idaho conducts critical work to support items, industry, train future generations and deliver knowledge to all Idahoans, creating a thriving and prosperous Idaho."

Pearce can be reached at editor@dnews.com or on Twitter @Emily_A_Pearce.