From test tube to plate, UW program keeps spuds clean

Wisconsin State Farmer
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MADISON - Years before that french fry landed on your plate, the plant that would eventually give rise to the spud your fry was cut from was sealed away deep in a secure-access building, growing slowly in a test tube inside a locked growth chamber.

At least, it was if it was the product of the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program, or WSPCP, a 104-year-old program run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison dedicated to supplying Wisconsin seed potato farmers with quality, disease-free tubers.

Microtuber potato cultivars (red, russet and purple) used in research by the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program (WSPCP) are housed in test tubes inside an environmentally-controlled growth room at the Biotron Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

All that security helps keep these important plants clean. And clean is a big deal for potatoes. Because they are grown from the eyes of tubers, called seed potatoes, rather than from true seeds, potatoes can easily carry bacterial and viral diseases in their starchy flesh from generation to generation. The solution is exacting cleanliness and rigorous testing at every stage of potato propagation.

WSPCP supplies 70 percent of the seed potatoes for Wisconsin's 9,000 acres of farmland dedicated to propagating seed potatoes. The program certifies 200 million pounds of seed potatoes every year, enough to plant roughly 90,000 acres for commercial growing. Those spuds are then sold to commercial potato growers in Wisconsin, other states and around the world to be turned into farm-fresh potatoes, chips and fries.

Brooke Babler (left) and Robert Witherell (right), both researchers in the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program (WSPCP), check on micro propagated potato plants used in research by WSPCP that are housed in test tubes inside an environmentally-controlled growth room at the Biotron Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Aug. 4, 2015.

Each one of those potatoes' progenitors once passed through the hands of two researchers at UW-Madison, Andy Witherell and Brooke Babler. In about three months, they can turn a handful of small potato plants growing in test tubes into hundreds. Multiply that by dozens of different varieties of potatoes - Caribou Russet, Magic Molly, German Butterball - and together Witherell and Babler produce tens of thousands of potato plantlets every year.

Witherell and Babler work out of the Biotron, a facility on the UW-Madison campus designed to replicate any climate needed for research. The building's secure access and clean protocols help them scrub the potato plants of any diseases and propagate them in sterile environments until they're ready to plant in soil.

"This is a good place to grow plants because we've got a system that's really clean," explains Witherell. "The Biotron air is filtered, and we have a clean room to work with."

Workers at a potato farm near Coloma, WI., pick through harvested potatoes as they come down a conveyer system on Sept. 4, 2009.