As eating habits evolve, the potato’s place at the dinner table continues to change.
David Douches, a professor in the department of plant, soil and microbial sciences and director of the MSU potato breeding and genetics program, has been at the forefront of the potato’s ascension as people get more adventurous with their eating habits. Known as “Mr. Potato Prof,” he is MSU’s Corporate Connector of the Year.
Douches helps develop new varieties for Michigan, one of the country’s top potato producers, with names ranging from Beacon Chipper and Purple Haze to Raspberry and Spartan Splash. Blackberry, a fresh market purple potato, is bringing a pop of color to the snack world.
“Great Lakes Potato Chips is working out the commercialization of purple potato chips from this potato,” Douches said. “It should be a fun product.”
The wide range of varieties he has developed are becoming more and more relevant. About 15 years ago, he noticed a change coming in potato consumption, citing a variety named Jacqueline Lee (named after his daughter), a medium size potato with yellow flesh that didn’t fit the market at the time. Now, it is being marketed nationally and internationally.
“Our Manistee variety is helping the growers and processors by having a quality product throughout the storage season, as well as extending the storage season,” Douches said.
Douches earned this award for his tireless efforts to connect his potato breeding program to the needs of companies in the potato marketplace. He works with companies at all stages – from basic plant genetics research in collaboration with french fry giant Simplot, to cooperative programs with the Michigan potato growing industry, to obtaining multiple licenses of potato varieties to producers around the world.
“The expertise at the Innovation Center allows me to stay on task and continue to advance my activities by managing the IP,” Douches said. “This is very valuable.”
Douches’ efforts provide farmers a longer supply period and processors with more product. He also helped potatoes become more self-sufficient by integrating resistance traits for diseases.
“In my opinion, plant breeding is a public service,” Douches said. “Plant breeding contributes to a diverse and abundant food supply that we all benefit from.”
Students who have learned under Douches have come to MSU from countries including Bangladesh, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Colombia and Argentina to breed strains that can survive back home. They have produced potatoes engineered to thrive in different environments, including drought tolerance and resistance to late blight, which caused the Irish Potato Famine.
The big breakthrough for Douches came in 2011, when the potato genome was sequenced through an international team, which led to his team developing genome-wide genetic markers. This enabled more precise breeding and the ability to genetically mark desired traits, giving the already-versatile potato even more possibilities.