Apr 9, 2024
University of Idaho germplasm program has new director

A specialist in plant pathology and fungal disease is the new director of the University of Idaho’s Seed Potato Germplasm program. Kayla Spawton began her role in late February.

Spawton earned a bachelor’s degree in ecology, evolution and biodiversity from University of California-Davis in 2014, minoring in fungal biology and ecology. She worked as a microbiology research assistant with an agriculture biotech startup company, evaluating the ability of microbes to increase yields and stress tolerance of major crops, before returning to UC Davis to manage a project to monitor streams for the causal agent of sudden oak death, a disease affecting native California coastal forests and nurseries.

In 2023, she earned a doctorate in plant pathology from Washington State University, researching a fungal disease affecting spinach grown for seed as well as fresh market and processing spinach.

“My Ph.D. was very focused on working with growers and seed companies,” Spawton said in a news release. “I really enjoy working closely with those who have other roles in agriculture.”

Kayla Spawton, a specialist in plant pathology and fungal disease, is the new director of the University of Idaho’s Seed Potato Germplasm program. Photo courtesy of U of I.

U of I’s germplasm program supports a vital industry. Sixty percent of all potatoes consumed in the U.S. and 90% of Idaho potatoes can be traced back to the Moscow laboratory, which produces plantlets and mini-tubers used in the initial phase of seed potato production.

Potatoes are Idaho’s largest cash crop, generating $1.3 billion in revenue in 2023, U of I agricultural economists estimated.

“That’s why I wanted to get into applied research — to be a part of a team that’s making a difference in helping out farmers and getting food to folks,” Spawton said.

U of I moved seed potato germplasm production into its current state-of-the-art laboratory in the spring of 2022. The program’s part-time lab manager, Shannon Kuhl, ran the facility on an acting basis for the year and half.

Program staff also includes a part-time greenhouse manager and a team of undergraduate workers who help with tissue culturing and greenhouse work.

While Spawton’s background is in true seed, potato seed is propagated vegetatively — asexually producing clones by raising whole plants from stem cuttings or tubers. The lab produces both disease-free plant cuttings, which can be grown into a potato plant, and tiny potatoes known as mini-tubers. These plantlets and mini-tubers are shipped to early generation seed producers throughout the world.

“The program is a unique service to the potato industry in Idaho, but also nationally and internationally,” Spawton said. “For example, we just sent plantlets to Egypt.”

The lab starts with tubers, which are sprouted and established in tissue culture. The shoots are carried through virus cleanup and grown into new plantlets for several generations until regulated pathogens are eliminated.

The lab stores experimental lines and varieties for the Tri-State Potato Research and Breeding Program, which is a regional collaboration involving U of I, Oregon State University, Washington State University, the potato commissions of the three states and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service of Idaho and Washington. They also clean and maintain lines for paying customers.

Spawton has several research projects in mind for the laboratory, including researching methods to boost mini-tuber production. The laboratory recently added technology to cryogenically preserve potato plant meristems for greater storage stability and longer shelf life, and Spawton and her staff will research how to use cryogenics in  virus cleanup. They also plan to evaluate methods for storing other crop lines.

“That’s something we’re interested in exploring. We’ll just have to be thoughtful of what we take on,” Spawton said. “I’m lucky to be coming into a facility that’s only a few years old. We have a lot of resources here — a lot of room to expand — which is a very nice situation for the program.”

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