OSU has new potato breeding head after two-year vacancy

December 11, 2012
Sagar Sathuvalli
Sagar Sathuvalli will serve as head of Oregon State University's potato breeding program. (Photo by Oregon Potato Commission.)

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University once again has a plant breeder leading its potato development efforts after filling a position that was vacant for nearly two years. 

Sagar Sathuvalli, who started this month, is leading OSU's work to create new varieties of potatoes that are more nutritious and resist pests and diseases, including late blight. He is based at its Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

A native of India, Sathuvalli spent most of the last decade in Corvallis, earning doctoral and master’s degrees in horticulture from OSU. In 2011, he began working as a post-doctoral research associate in hazelnut breeding and genetics at OSU.

In his new post, Sathuvalli and his colleagues will search for favorable traits in wild species, then cross those potatoes with domesticated ones. Creating new breeds of potatoes can take at least 12 years, but OSU hopes to speed up the process by using genetic markers, which are sequences of DNA that are found near genes researchers are analyzing.

Sathuvalli assumes the responsibilities of departed OSU potato researchers Dan Hane, who retired, and Isabel Vales, who accepted a job elsewhere. 

The position had remained vacant because of funding shortages, said Russ Karow, the head of OSU’s department of crop and soil science. A portion of Sathuvalli’s salary will be funded through an endowment created by a recent $500,000 commitment to OSU by the Oregon Potato Commission.

“There is an expectation to find new varieties for the Pacific Northwest,” Karow said. “We are in a strong cooperative relationship with the Oregon Potato Commission, regularly discussing issues and research. We work hand-in-hand with the commission to look at their research priorities.”  

Sathuvalli is also working closely with OSU's potato researchers around the state, including Solomon Yilma in Corvallis, Brian Charlton in Klamath Falls and Clint Shock in Ontario. The group is collaborating on breeding and marketing efforts with peers in Washington and Idaho as part of the Pacific Northwest Tri-State Breeding Program.

“We will try to find solutions as a team,” said Sathuvalli. “My main philosophy is to listen to growers, to see what they’re interested in and any issues in variety development. I look forward to finding out what the industry needs.” 

When not conducting research, Sathuvalli will perform duties for the OSU Extension Service by disseminating new information to farmers and processors. Among his top priorities is to spearhead the development of a new website.

“We will use the website to create awareness about our breeding program. It will house information useful for researchers across the globe,” said Sathuvalli. “Hopefully it will bring new collaborations, too.” 

Real-time alerts about disease and pest outbreaks, such as zebra chip and tuber moth, will also be featured prominently on the website.

Potatoes were Oregon's sixth most-important agricultural commodity in terms of gross sales in 2011, according to a report by the OSU Extension Service. The state's sold $165 million of them in 2011 after harvesting nearly 40,000 acres, the report said.

Author: Daniel Robison