I am driven to grow more food with fewer resources

With increasing population and decreasing available cropland, global food security is a serious and pressing threat. James Bradeen and colleagues identify genes in plants that contribute to disease resistance and make our crops more resilient and secure.

Using molecular biology to improve disease resistance in plants

James Bradeen
“I’m extremely optimistic that the work that we’re doing here at the U—in crop improvement, in the economics of agriculture, in food safety, and in social justice related to food security issues—is the right effort at the right time to really make an impact on global food security.” James Bradeen, Professor Click to tweet

A case study: the importance of healthy potatoes

The calorie-rich potato has been a staple crop worldwide for centuries, but potato late blight disease can unexpectedly wipe out an entire crop (see time-lapse video). U of M researchers are working to identify genes for breeding more disease-resistant varieties of potatoes and other crops.


Metric Tons

More than 374.5 million metric tons of potatoes were produced worldwide in 2013. China, India, and Russia lead global potato production.



Potatoes produce 17.8 million calories per acre—more than any cereal crop—making it an important crop plant for food security.



More than a million Irish people starved to death in the 1840s when potato late blight disease destroyed their crops during the Irish Potato Famine. Late blight disease remains the number one production problem for potato worldwide.



The potato genome encodes 39,031 genes. Of these, more than 500 are involved in detecting crop pathogens and defending against diseases like late blight.

Using DNA and massive amounts of data to enhance disease resistance

illustration of potato genome

According to U of M postdoctoral associate Leon Van Eck:

“At the University of Minnesota we’re trying to identify genes that contribute to disease resistance in various species. We're able to leverage technologies that have emerged only in the last couple of years and are now able to do things that were totally unimaginable just 10 years ago.

We can look at the genomes and the chromosomes of different species at the same time, and by essentially comparing the evolutionary stories of these different species, identify unique genetic signatures that may contribute to disease resistance. For example, this approach in apples may help us identify more useful resistance genes in crabapples, or wild apple relatives. We can then leverage this information to breed some of that genetic resistance into varieties for the farmer, which ultimately benefits the consumer.”

(The species pictured are from Rosaceae: genomes of apple, peach, and strawberry.)
“The University is an ideal place to do food security research because we bring together experts from multiple different fields to tackle complicated problems.” James Bradeen, Professor Click to tweet