Biochemical, molecular and genetic studies emphasize the role of the potato vacuolar invertase Pain-1 in the accumulation of reducing sugars in potato tubers upon cold storage, and thereby its influence on the quality of potato chips and French fries. Previous studies showed that natural Pain-1 cDNA alleles were associated with better chip quality and higher tuber starch content. In this study, we focused on the functional characterization of these alleles. A genotype-dependent transient increase of total Pain-1 transcript levels in cold-stored tubers of six different genotypes as well as allele-specific expression patterns were detected. 3D modelling revealed putative structural differences between allelic Pain-1 proteins at the molecule's surface and at the substrate binding site. Furthermore, the yeast SUC2 mutant was complemented with Pain-1 cDNA alleles and enzymatic parameters of the heterologous expressed proteins were measured at 30 and 4 °C. Significant differences between the alleles were detected. The observed functional differences between Pain-1 alleles did not permit final conclusions on the mechanism of their association with tuber quality traits. Our results show that natural allelic variation at the functional level is present in potato, and that the heterozygous genetic background influences the manifestation of this variation. © 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.