Don’t Overlook the Most Important Part of Fruit Breeding [Opinion]

Don’t Overlook the Most Important Part of Fruit Breeding [Opinion]

The Greek philosopher Plato once said, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”

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I was reminded of this as I talked to a few folks from the Midwest Apple Improvement Association (MAIA) and also Bruce Reisch of Cornell University for separate stories in this issue.

So often I write about varieties in terms of how they perform in a production system or how to prevent certain diseases or disorders, but I rarely spend much time thinking about how these varieties got established in the first place. That is, until I sat in on an MAIA science committee meeting in February at the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers’ Association annual meeting.

What struck me was how the group talked about which crosses they were going to make — what variety’s pollen would go into which variety’s flower. They talked about which crosses seeds were harvested from, which of the previous year’s seeds they had successfully cultivated, etc., etc.

I mean, I had a good general understanding of how fruit breeding works, and I knew these new varieties being released in the fruit industry didn’t just magically appear. But, I never really thought about how much time and effort it took for them to be released.

MAIA Chairman David Doud explains it pretty well.

“Some people say that we’re lucky. We choose to say we’re fortunate. We did all the work. We did all the crosses, we planted the seedlings, and we’re fortunate and have been blessed with some exciting and interesting things,” he says. “Luck is when you find it in the fencerow.”

For those of you in the fruit-breeding side of production, I can’t imagine how many crosses you’ve made that you thought would turn out, only to find out it’s a dud. Thankfully, breeders are using modern science to help track and select crosses being made to develop the next generation of varieties.

Reisch talked to me about how the VitisGen and VitisGen2 projects are identifying genetic marker-trait associations to help science screen not only wild grape varieties to use in crosses, but also to screen the products of those crosses. This helps accelerate the screening of next-generation fruit.

“The making of the cross is critical,” Diane Miller, breeder for MAIA told me. “If you don’t get the genetic potential there, you can get 10,000 seedlings and you don’t have anything worthwhile.”

MAIA is looking at crossing its best apples with varieties known to have disease resistance in order to develop the next-generation of super varieties — consumer and grower pleasing!

Miller says the group is “trying to put fruit quality into the disease resistance package.”

As breeders and researchers begin to understand more of the genetic markers for fruit quality, taste, shape, disease resistance, and even cold hardiness, I believe we’ll see even more crosses that turn out to be fortuitous. Which, will help boost fruit consumption. I hope.

That’s exactly what MAIA President Bill Dodd told me.

“We want to have stuff so good it increases apple consumption,” he said. “That may be pie in the sky, but we never imagined ‘EverCrisp’ would be where it is today.”

And I know the breeders making crosses today hope to say the same thing a few years down the road.