Tiny Tubers Pack Powerful Punch Nutritionally
When it comes to nutritional value, baby potatoes are proving to far outstrip their adult counterparts, according to Roy Navarre, USDA Agricultural Research Service research geneticist and adjunct professor with Washington State University.
In preliminary trials at WSU’s potato research center here, Navarre and his team are harvesting 71 different varieties of potatoes at between seven and 10 weeks of growth. Phytonutrients such as folate, or Vitamin B9, and other antioxidants appear in much higher levels in baby tubers weighing around an ounce, Navarre said.
“One of our goals is to help restore the healthful image of potatoes,” Navarre told those attending the WSU Potato Field Day in late June. “Demand has been falling, and we think one answer is to develop high nutrient potatoes consumers will want.”
One way to do that is to enhance the metabolic pathways that produce the target nutrients using classical breeding and/or molecular approaches. Navarre’s research includes collaborations with those working in potato breeding, agronomy, physiology and biochemistry like WSU professors Rick Knowles and Mark Pavek to flex those new genetic technology muscles.
If the team succeeds, Navarre said, the industry stands to make a true difference in the health of potato consumers. Potatoes are the fourth largest crop in the world. “It’s hard to think of a better crop for improving the overall health of consumers,” he said. “Potatoes are something we eat pounds of every year. It’s a staple crop in this country and abroad.”
He is also optimistic about the economic impact of the research. “This could be a show case project that could lift the whole industry,” Navarre said.
Is That Extra Fertilizer Worth It? Maybe Not, Research Says
While extra applications of nitrogen and other fertilizers might increase the overall yield in a potato field, it may not result in the optimal economic yield, according to research by WSU Extension horticulturist Mark Pavek and graduate student Chris Hiles.
Working with two newly released cultivars called Alturas and Premier at the WSU potato research unit in Othello, Hiles analyzed the impact of different nitrogen applications on crop yields. He also looked at overall economic yields as well. What he found may alter how growers approach adding inputs.
“Total yield doesn’t necessarily equate with the best economic yield,” he told those attending the WSU Potato Research Field Day in late June.
Especially given the increasingly high costs of petroleum-based fertilizers, optimal economic yield for the Premier cultivar actually occurs at approximately 87 percent of what is considered normal for growing Russet Burbank and maximum economic yield occurs at 96 percent of the normal rate for Russet Burbank in Alturas.
In other words, the net profit of a slightly smaller crop grown with fewer inputs is higher than a larger crop grown with inputs generally prescribed.
“There really is no reason to go above the 100 percent of normal rate,” Hiles said, “and in fact, the economics are better at lower levels.”
Colony Collapse Research Efforts Realizing Results
Old honeycomb and a new microscopic pathogen quietly spreading throughout the United States are two big contributors to the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder that has wiped out thousands of hives throughout the Pacific Northwest over the past several years, according to recent research results from Washington State University scientists.
Working on the project funded in part by regional beekeepers and WSU’s Agricultural Research Center, entomology professor Walter (Steve) Sheppard and his team have narrowed the list of CCD culprits.
“One of the first things we looked at was the pesticide levels in the wax of older honeycomb,” he said. Using combs contributed by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sheppard found “fairly high levels of pesticide residue.” Bees raised in those hives “had significantly reduced longevity,” he said.
One easy solution is for beekeepers to change honeycombs more often. In Europe, for example, apiarists change combs every three years. “In the U.S., we haven’t emphasized this practice and there’s no real consensus about how often beekeepers should make the change. Now we know that it needs to be more often.”
Another aspect of Sheppard’s work — being conducted by graduate student Matthew Smart — focuses on the impact of a microsporidian pathogen known as Nosema ceranae, which attacks the bee’s ability to process food. Beekeepers have considered it to be “the smoking gun” behind colony collapse.
“Nosema ceranae was only recently described in the U.S., the first time in 2007,” Sheppard said. “But while no one really noticed, it has spread throughout the country.”
Smart surveyed numerous bee colonies in both the Pacific Northwest and in California, and found the new pathogen to be very widespread.
Sheppard’s earlier research found it to be a tough bug to battle. Of 24 hives checked in early 2008, Nosema build-up was high in a majority of the bees sampled. Beekeeper Eric Olson of Yakima said he treated a hive with a mega-dose of the antibiotic fumagillin. “That should have cause the Nosema to either disappear or at least go down, but the levels went up,” he said.