Nov 3, 2009
Tree Fruit Breeders Get $14.4 Million for Massive Project

A Michigan State University cherry breeder is the project director managing $7.2 million in new funding from USDA. The project’s goal is to greatly speed up the development of new varieties of apples, peaches, cherries and strawberries.

The project name, RosBREED, describes the basic idea. All of these fruits are members of the rose family, Rosaceae, and share lots of genes. What makes an apple red also makes a cherry red. The genetic control of many common traits is similar across the family.

The project director is MSU horticulturist Amy Iezzoni. The $7.2 million from USDA will be matched by in-kind funding from institutions and organizations that provide people and activities that contribute to the work, so it’s being described as a $14.4 million effort that will last four years.

This project comes on the heels of other international initiatives, now almost complete, that sequenced the genomes of apples and other fruits.

“This is a watershed year for Rosaceae with the peach, apple and strawberry genomes being sequenced,” Iezzoni said. “Yet a huge gap exists because this DNA-based information is rarely applied to improve plant breeding for the development of new fruit cultivars.”

It is one thing to know that an apple carries a gene for red color, but quite another to know what part of what chromosome actually carries this gene for redness.

It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle, in which certain pieces – like genes for redness – are the same in cherries and apples and peaches, and once the genes and genetic locations are discovered in one fruit they can be looked for in the others.

Color, of course, is just one facet. There are genes controlling tree and fruit shapes, tastes, disease resistance – millions of things.

But the most important feature, Iezzoni said, is this: “If I can identify the desired genes early in the plant’s life cycle, I don’t have to grow seedlings out for many years to see whether the gene, and the desired trait, is there or not.”

That’s what makes plant breeding such a long process, she said.

“We will create a dynamic, sustained program in research, education and outreach for developing and applying marker-assisted breeding (MAB) to accelerate and increase the efficiency of rosaceous cultivar release,” says the mission statement on the RosBREED Web site (

The “we” includes eight “team leaders” containing names like Jim Luby, the University of Minnesota breeder who developed the Honeycrisp apple; 20 “participants” with 12 apple, peach, strawberry and cherry breeders including Kate Evans at Washington State, Susan Brown at Cornell, John Clark at University of Arkansas, David Byrne at Texas A&M, Jim Hancock at Michigan State University and professors like Greg Reighard at Clemson University; and 18 “collaborators.”

There are names from universities, USDA and foreign countries. The project involves scientists from 11 U.S. institutions, including several land-grant universities, USDA labs, and six international partners from the Netherlands, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile, France and the United Kingdom.

Honeycrisp is something of a poster child for the effort as it shows both the huge success and the long road to it. It required 30 years from the initial crossing in 1961 to the commercialization in 1991, and then more years as growers adopted and consumers discovered this variety. Sixteen years after its commercial introduction, in 2007 Honeycrisp won the Outstanding Fruit Cultivar Award from the American Society for Horticultural Science.

This project will try to bring new varieties like Honeycrisp to the market in a much shorter timeframe.

The vision: “Integration of modern genomics tools with traditional breeding approaches will transform crop improvement in Rosaceae, significantly improving profitability of U.S. rosaceous crop industries and contributing to increased consumption and enjoyment of these fruit, nut and floral products,” according to the Web site.

The project is part of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, which funds multiyear, multi-institutional collaborative projects. The institute is the new name for the Cooperative States Research, Education and Extension Service.

RosBREED follows earlier genomic, genetic and breeding programs focused on rice, wheat, barley, conifers, potatoes and tomatoes.

“RosBREED is rooted in our vision that the common ancestral origin of this diverse plant family can be harnessed to leverage knowledge and resources across commodity boundaries,” Iezzoni said.

“This project exploits similarities among the genomes of three fruit-bearing species of Rosaceae – Malus (apple), Prunus (peach and cherry) and Fragaria (strawberry) to develop practical applications. Collectively, these three lineages represent the majority of the fruits produced and consumed in the United States.”

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