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Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Research Program

The Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Program at North Carolina State University, one of the oldest sweetpotato breeding programs in the US, has a long history of success. Sweetpotatoes are the most important vegetable crop in North Carolina and are a major economic driver in rural eastern NC. During 2019-2020, our farmers produced over 1.5 billion pounds of sweetpotato, accounting for roughly 60% of the nation’s supply and ca. $300 million/year in farm receipts (4-year average). NC’s sweetpotato success story is recognized globally, and the state is considered one of the premier sweetpotato producers in the world, with over 415 farms and 28 storage facilities, packing facilities, and food manufacturers providing jobs in rural communities.

Likewise, NC State University has unparalleled expertise in sweetpotato research, encompassing breeding, genomics, quantitative genetics, cultural management, plant pathology, seed systems, food science, biological and agricultural engineering, economics, and, in today’s information-intensive world, new projects in advanced data analytics and computer visualization.

The Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Program is led by Dr. Craig Yencho with the assistance of Ken Pecota, who manages our field breeding activities. Our laboratories and greenhouse are located on NC State’s main campus, and our primary research site is located at the Horticultural Crops Research Station in Clinton, NC. We also have extensive trialing sites at: the Cunningham Research Station and Caswell Research Farm in Kinston, NC; the Central Crops Research Station in Clayton, NC; and the Sandhills Research Station in Jackson Springs, NC; as well as 3-5 on-farm trials each year that are located in the heart of the NC sweetpotato production region. 

The program’s goals are to: 1) develop sweetpotato varieties adapted to the growing conditions of North Carolina and the southeastern US; 2) broaden the germplasm base of cultivated sweetpotato through the incorporation of land races and related species; and 3) provide advanced training for national and international students and scientists interested in sweetpotato improvement. We use a combination of conventional, biochemical, and genomic-assisted breeding as necessary and feasible to facilitate our breeding efforts. 

Current Largest Research Projects

1. Guava Root-Knot Nematode (GRKN) Mitigation.

A NCSPC-supported research project focused on breeding resistance to GRKN and SRKN into a new generation of high quality, marketable sweetpotato cultivars for NC growers.

2. Development of Processing Type Sweetpotato Varieties

An effort supported by growers and several processing industry partners focused on developing new sweetpotato varieties for the French Fry and chip processing markets.

3. SweetARMOR: Rapid Development of Marketable Root-Knot Nematode Resistant Sweetpotato Varieties. 

A USDA-NIFA SCRI research and extension project focused on quickly developing control strategies for the Guava Root Knot Nematode, Meloidogyne enterolobii, a newly introduced pest threatening our industry, and beginning longer-term, genomic-assisted sweetpotato breeding strategies to develop germplasm and new varieties with resistance to GRKN.

4. RTB Breeding. 

RTB Breeding (Root, Tuber, and Banana) is a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded project that represents the first phase towards establishing a longer-term plan in the genetic improvement of RTB crops in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This project aims to modernize sweetpotato breeding in SSA through the development of market-preferred, gender-sensitive and climate-resilient varieties.

5. Ornamental Sweetpotato Breeding and Variety Development. 

A project supported by Proven Winners® The #1 Plant Brand® that has resulted in the release of over 25 ornamental sweetpotato varieties to date.

Research Partnerships