In the Field: Dave Douches

Dr. Dave Douches is a professor in Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University. Dave's love for potato breeding and genetics began while working on his master's degree.

May 15, 2018

Dave Douches stands in the field.

Dr. Dave Douches is a professor in Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences at Michigan State University. Dave's love for potato breeding and genetics began while working on his master's degree. After receiving his doctorate, Dave realized "there is a career opportunity to be a potato breeder and study the genetics of the potato, so I followed that path." That potato path eventually led him to Michigan State University.

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In the Field with Dave Douches - Transcript

Kraig Ehm: Welcome to "In the Field", a podcast originating from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. I'm your host Kraig Ehm. In this episode of "In the Field" I'm joined by Dr. Dave Douchess, WJB distinguished professor in plant, soil, and microbial sciences at Michigan State University. Dave, what stoked your interest in potatoes?

Dave Douches: Well when I went to Rutgers University, I went off to graduate school at North Carolina State, and there I had the opportunity to get involved with potato breeding and genetics at the university in my master's program. And it was very fascinating to start learning about potatoes, and the opportunities there. And as I continued to graduate school, I then studied the potato at UC Davis for my PHD, with a whole different angle. And that kind of triggered me to say, "Well, there's a career opportunity to be a potato breeder, and study the genetics of the potato." And so I followed that path.

Ehm: All those years ago, would you see yourself being where you are today?

Douches: Well you don't really think that far ahead. I knew that I wanted to be a plant breeder, and to work on potatoes was really a great opportunity. 'Cause it's such a great crop, important food crop for the world, important food crop for the US. So I really felt that I had a great opportunity to come to Michigan State and work on that.

Ehm: You're working with mapping the genome for the potato. Why is that important?

Douches: We really need to understand the genetic basis of a lot of traits. If we really wanna improve the potato, the more we can understand at the gene level, and the chromosome level what's going on with our traits, the better off we are in trying to breed those traits and to improve varieties.

Ehm:  Why is it so important for Michigan State University to be involved?

Douches: Michigan's a potato state, and we're a land grant university. And so our mission is to work on crops that are important to our state, and potato is one of them.

Ehm: What's the biggest challenge that you face working with potatoes?

Douches: The challenge is to create improved varieties that really capture the resistances that are needed for the farmers to produce their crop as well as they can, and also maintain or improve the quality of the products for the different market classes.

Ehm: How long have you been working with potatoes, and what puts a smile on your face every day when you're able to work with them?

Douches: Because I was able to work on potatoes in graduate school, I'm now 35 years continuously working on potatoes. It's unbelievable that I can look back and say, "I've been working on that." And what's amazing about that, is after all those years, I'm probably just excited or more excited working on the potato today then when I started, because some of the opportunities that we saw in the future are starting to come to fruition because of the new technologies that have come along.

Ehm: How many samples do you need to extract?

Student in lab: A few samples, I think that they're going to extract only something like four samples.

Ehm: Mentoring and graduate students, what do you think about that?

Douches: Well when you're at the university you have the opportunity to train graduate students. And really the graduate students are kind of a science engine for the programs. And so having students like Natalie and Felix, and I have others. What they're doing is they're diving into a research topic and really studying that area, and then that really kind of drives forward the results, and then the ideas keep moving forward, and we can maybe make progress on the potato.

Ehm: They also bring a little enthusiasm to the table, right?

Douches in lab: We move these back over to this side of the rack so we have them ready to go to the greenhouse.

Student in lab: Okay.

Douches: Oh yes, graduate students really have a passion about what they wanna do. And what they really need to do at Michigan State is to take advantage of the opportunities through their classwork, through their research, interactions that are available at the university. So I'm a real supporter of them coming to a great land grant university because there's so many opportunities that are gonna help direct where they go after their graduated ... Do you have samples that you need to isolate?

Female student: Oh yeah, I have my genetical lines that I will be isolating DNA soon.

Ehm: They're taking what they're learning here, and they're not just staying here locally. I mean, they're going internationally.

Douches: Right, I have a mix of international and domestic students. But even our domestic students could end up doing types of international work.

Ehm: I'm joined by Felix Encisol a PHD student from Columbia who is studying genome editing, and genomic selection. He's also working with an MSU professor in another department on statistics.

Felix Encisol: I'm working with Gustavo Los Campos, and he has a wide experience working with humans, animals, and plants. So he's very well known because he develops one statistic, which allow us to analyze thousands of samples at the same time, and associate these samples with the specific traits in, as I told you, in plants, humans or animals. So in this case specifically, I'm working with a genome wide association analysis and genome selection in potato. Looking for a specific genomic regions associated with resistance against [inaudible 00:05:56], are two of the main diseases that affect potato and cost us up to 100% of losses in its production.

Ehm: Now Felix, you're from Columbia. How did you get interested in working in potatoes?

Felix: So in Columbia I worked for a public company, which we manage all endangered plants collection of crops for our country. And one of those crops were potatoes, so I have some previous experience with potatoes. I was looking one place in which I can improve my knowledge about potatoes, and I found that MSU is one of the best recognized programs worldwide. So I apply here, and here I am.

Ehm: In addition to being here at Michigan State, you also received the Fulbright Scholarship?

Felix: Yes, so this process was pretty hard because the Full Bright Scholarships are pretty competitive. But they were interested in people like me, because they know that coming to these universities in the US, are going to give us a huge advantage compared in national universities, at least in my country. Because in here you have a huge experience in working with different crops.

Douches in lab: Felix, do you have any plants that need to go to the greenhouse yet?

Felix in lab: Yes, I have some plants that I need to take them out I think next week, but first I need to check the DNA, if I have my genes inserted.

Ehm: So what's it been like working with Dr Douchess?

Felix: For me it has an incredible experience, because first he has a wide knowledge about potato breeding. Previously in Columbia I didn't go to work in field, I always been working in lab. But in here I have experience to see how all these field experiments can be conducted, and that's the good part for me, because I can apply all this knowledge that I'm learning here, back in my country trying to produce and increase the potato production. At the same time, he allow me to prove my theories, so specifically in the case of the genome editing project, I propose him to special one specific gene, and he encourage me to follow this process. And we are getting good results now. So that's the most important thing for me, that you are able here to propose different projects, and with his support, you can go and get the results that you want to get.

Ehm: In addition to graduating with a PHD, what are you hoping to accomplish that you can take back to Columbia?

Felix: The first thing for me is that, here I'm doing very nice networking. So just interacting here with the MSU potato breeding people, but at the same time I'm interacting with different potato people all across the United States. So, I see a huge opportunity to have projects that when I come back to Columbia, and at the same time the knowledge that I acquire here is a good strategy for me to apply all this knowledge back in my country, and increase as I told you before, increase the potato production in my country. So I can be a support of the current potato breeding programs, and I can try to help them to improve all these breeding schemes that they already have in my country. And at the same time I can apply this knowledge that I'm getting here not just for potato, but for other crops too that are important in my country ...

Ehm: I'm joined by Natalie Kirk Wyland, PHD student, studying host plant insect resistance in potatoes. Natalie, what is that?

Natalie Kirk Wyland: So specifically, I study how plants can be resistant to the Colorado Potato Beetle, which is a major pest of potatoes. They destroy the crop by feeding on the foliage, which reduces the yield. So we are looking at how we can bring in resistance that is found in wild relatives, to cultivated varieties, so that we can apply less pesticides and use it as a component of integrated pest management strategies to combat this menacing pest ...

Ehm: Now potatoes are a big deal to the state of Michigan, right?

Kirk Wyland: Yes, Michigan is the top state for producing potatoes, specifically for potato chips.

Douches in lab: Actually you saw the email from Joe that we needed to get the biotechnology permits ready?

Kirk Wyland in lab: Yeah.

Douches in lab: So we'll need the background information on the ALS lines.

Kirk Wyland in lab: Oh okay, okay.

Ehm: What's it been like working with Dr Douchess?

Kirk Wyland: Dr Douchess is an exemplary mentor, for one, because he's very keen on having students get hands on experience in whatever aspect they're interested in pursuing in the future for their career, as well as different things that will make them a well rounded individual in general. So I really appreciate that he pushes students to get experience for the breeding program, not just with their research. And he's very attentive to your background, and pushing you to be a better student.

Ehm: So you've learned more under Dr Douchess than you originally thought you would?

Kirk Wyland: This is correct, so I came in with a really hands on, technical, agricultural background and Dr Douchess has been instrumental in getting me plugged in with different genomic resources to ensure that, that's a component of my research.

Ehm: Now, how important is it for you to be out in the greenhouse getting your hands dirty, as opposed to just learning things in a text book?

Kirk Wyland: So while both are important, I think it's very difficult to fully understand the population that you're working with, if you aren't seeing them on a hands on level every day. So I work with a population that is segregating for insect resistance, and in order to really understand the characteristics of them, it's important to see them in different conditions as they are hit with different diseases, and abiotic stresses.

Ehm: In addition to receiving your doctorate, what are you hoping to accomplish when you leave Michigan State?

Kirk Wyland: One of the things I really appreciate about Michigan State is it's such a collaborative environment, so I hope to establish firm connections with individuals here that we may benefit each other in our research in the future, as well as contribute to the culture of excellence here.

Ehm: When your days here at Michigan State are done, how would you like to be remembered?

Douches:  I don't think about that, but really the bottom line when it comes to plant breeding and genetics, is that we wanna translate the genetic research that we've learned, into improved potato varieties. That's what the farmers grab hold of, that's what the industry and the consumers really benefit from. So it's taking that research and translating it into a tangible product for the public.

Ehm: Over the years, what are some of the comments that you've received from producers?

Douches: As a potato breeder, you have to have a thick skin in that, you release varieties with the hope that they have some advantages. And so, some are winners, some are losers. But the idea is to keep pushing ahead, getting new ones out there, and the industry is what's amazing is how innovative they are when you give them a variety, they sometimes find a way to find uses for it that you didn't even think was possible.

Ehm: Anything else you'd like to add?

Douches: I've been here at the university all these years, I really enjoy being here. I hope to put a good chunk of more years in before I retire.

Ehm: I'd like to thank Dr Dave Douchess, Natalie Kirk Wyland, and Felix Encisol for joining me today. Have a great day.

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