Impact of RosBREED Extends Beyond the Research World
Scientists are not known for having a way with words, but Amy Iezzoni, a tart cherry breeder at Michigan State University, once described the RosBREED project as having to do with finding the “jewels in the genome.” A beautiful turn of phrase, as the term “genome” refers to all the DNA an individual inherits from its parents, and dictate specific characteristics like flowering time, fruit size, or disease resistance.
Iezzoni is director of this massive genomics research project, which involves numerous scientists and industry stakeholders. RosBREED, funded through the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), began in 2009 and continued with RosBREED2, which will end in August.
I am a bit sad to see it go, mainly because I will miss the annual meetings each January in San Diego, where I met so many people who care as deeply as I do about this country’s fruit industry. I know I’ve made this point ad nauseam, but looking at the big picture, which is producing fruit that consumers buy over and over, we’re talking about nothing less than the health of our children and their children’s children.
Plant breeders have been searching for jewels in the genome for centuries, but they didn’t have modern genomics and genetics technologies at their disposal. More than a decade ago, Iezzoni recognized that while breeders in such crops as corn and soybeans were using these tools, breeding programs in rosaceous crops — almond, apple, apricot, blackberry, cherry, peach, pear, raspberry, rose, and strawberry — were getting left behind. Not any more.
RosBREED is the first time such a broad, integrated, multi-disciplinary, multi-regional approach has been undertaken. Project scientists represent a range of U.S. universities, USDA-ARS locations, and a number of international labs. The 12 breeding programs in apple, cherry, peach, and strawberry represent every significant production area in the U.S. The ending of RosBREED isn’t a sad occasion in the grand scheme of things, not at all. Incidentally, Iezzoni and her colleagues thought about continuing with a RosBREED3, but the needs of the breeders of the various crop types have diverged. The one exception is the Prunus crops, where there are common needs for stone fruit and almond growers, and hence, breeders. That project of more limited scope is in the works.
To give just one example of the original two RosBREED projects’ lasting impacts, the first breeding program to be modeled was the University of Minnesota apple breeding program, where ‘Honeycrisp’ was developed years before. The head of that program, Jim Luby, says they have developed a genome-wide selection model to predict 10 fruit traits, including sweetness, acidity, crispness, size, and appearance. Performance predictions for promising cultivars — what the breeders call “elite selections” — are a fantastic time-saver, and not just to find the winners. Some of these can have a fatal flaw, such as susceptibility to a certain disease, and can be discarded much earlier in the game.
Last year, Iezzoni, the director/breeder/wordsmith, summed up the project’s enduring legacy better than I ever could: “Finding traits can be like finding a needle in a haystack, but thanks to RosBREED, the needle is neon.”