Mar 11, 2011
RosBREED bringing fruit breeders together

It’s an exciting time to be a fruit breeder.

That much was evident March 8, when breeders of rosaceous crops – including apples, peaches, cherries and strawberries – got together in Lansing, Mich., to share data and trumpet the RosBREED project to the outside world.

RosBREED, a $14.4 million effort funded by USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative and matching donors, is bringing fruit-breeding efforts together like never before – with an unprecedented level of funding, said Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.

Dozens of researchers are involved from a dozen breeding programs, all sharing the goal of speeding up the development of marketable fruit in the Rosaceae family. The best way to achieve that goal most likely lies within the realm of genetics, according to Amy Iezzoni, the project’s director and a cherry breeder at Michigan State University (MSU).

During a show, tell and taste session, several breeders talked about the advantages of collaborating through RosBREED.

Apples

Apple-breeding efforts got a big boost last year with the publication of the newly sequenced apple genome (the totality of its genetic information). That breakthrough should allow breeders to identify a greater number of desirable genes (those responsible for characteristics such as texture or flavor) at a much faster rate than was possible before, said Kate Evans, an apple breeder at Washington State University.

What kind of varieties are breeders hoping to create? Well, something like Gala or Honeycrisp, but better. Both varieties are popular with consumers, but both have drawbacks. As much acclaim as Honeycrisp has earned for its texture and flavor, it’s not considered a grower-friendly variety. It has a number of storage, postharvest and handling issues. If you could eliminate the negative characteristics of Honeycrisp while retaining the positive characteristics, you’d have a nice apple, said Jim Luby, an apple breeder at the University of Minnesota.

Such an apple wouldn’t just benefit consumers, but producers as well, said Susan Brown, an apple breeder at Cornell University.

Strawberries

Jim Hancock, an MSU professor, talked about utilizing wild strawberry germplasm to “jack up” the quality and flavor of commercial varieties.

That’s one way breeders hope to improve strawberries. Isolating genes responsible for traits such as day neutrality is another. Participation in RosBREED should speed up the breeding process and allow researchers to share resources, said Chad Finn, a research geneticist based at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service office in Corvallis, Ore.

Peaches

“Most of you would agree: A good peach is hard to beat,” John Clark said to the RosBREED attendants. “But most of you would agree: A good peach we ain’t got.”

Clark, a breeder at the University of Arkansas, said a peach has a terrific flavor picked ripe off the tree, but to get it to a store you have to pick it green and haul it a long way. By the time the peach is on the shelf, it’s mealy and doesn’t taste like much. The peach industry isn’t putting a good enough product in consumer hands, and as a result peach consumption in the United States has remained fairly flat.

If breeders and geneticists can find out how to select for traits that improve a peach’s flesh and make it hold up better in storage, that could go a long way toward restoring the fruit’s image, he said.

Ksenija Gasic, a peach breeder at Clemson University, said there’s definitely a discrepancy between what the industry can produce on the tree and what it can deliver in stores.
Gasic’s main focus is to deliver quality peaches to consumers. RosBREED is giving her good tools to do that, helping her select parents, design crosses, produce better seedlings – and narrow down the number of plants she has to put in the field, she said.

Matt Milkovich





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