Opinion: The Legacy Of The RosBREED Project

Brian SparksIn 2009, the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded a new project called RosBREED. Made up of plant breeders as well as allied industry members from the research, marketing, and grower communities, the RosBREED project was designed to create a national network that would facilitate the use of marker-assisted breeding to deliver improved plant materials more efficiently and rapidly. The project focused on the Rosaceae family (including apples, peaches, sweet and tart cherries, and strawberries).

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In each of these crops, the development of new cultivars with improved quality has led to increased consumption, while contributing to the profitability and sustainability of the growing industry. However, breeding such new cultivars can take several years from initial cross to release. It’s difficult to predict which selections will be the best parents, which leads to significant time and expense involved in planting and evaluating thousands of seedlings.

Using marker assisted breeding enables breeders to employ genetics to identify advantageous traits in Rosaceae crops, such as fruit size, color, firmness, etc. These traits can be used to identify the best parents in a much quicker manner, thereby reducing the need to evaluate thousands of seedlings, many of which may be ultimately useless. In other words, it creates a much quicker path to new variety development.

Up Close And Personal

A couple years ago, I was asked to serve as one of several industry advisors for the RosBREED project. As a result of this, I’ve had the chance to attend organizational meetings, where breeders, scientists, and others reported on their latest developments in analyzing genotypes and using this data to identify ideal plant traits.

I’ll be the first to admit that much of the discussion was a bit over my head. I have a degree in journalism, not genetics or horticulture, so it was a challenge to keep up with talks on germplasm, DNA markers, and how to develop “jewels in the genomes.”

However, it didn’t take long to understand the long-term benefits the work this group was conducting would have on the fruit industry. Growers are always on the hunt for new varieties that are both easy to grow and will make them money. So, too, are consumers looking for fruit at the supermarket or farm market that looks and tastes great, and is good for them. The ability to accomplish both of these goals, and to do so in a timely manner, is certainly an important goal.

The Show Will Go On

The end of 2013 also marks the end of the federal funding cycle for RosBREED. The work each team member has already done will continue, and there will no doubt be partnerships on new research. In the meantime, as the project itself draws to a close, each breeding team has come up with “impact statements” in which they demonstrate, no pun intended, the fruits of their efforts. For most of the teams, this means anything from genetic testing of thousands of seedlings, to the identification of traits both growers and consumers desire, to the time and resources saved in bringing these selections closer to fruition.

Amy Iezzoni, a tart cherry breeder and professor at Michigan State University, notes that plant breeders have always sought to develop superior new cultivars and are “relentlessly optimistic that by combining knowledge of germplasm with a lot of hard work, their program is just one generation away from the next breakthrough cultivar. Now, thanks to RosBREED, breeders can be both more efficient and more effective in their quest, utilizing exciting new genetic and socio-economic information about traits important throughout the whole supply chain, from growers to consumers.”

Iezzoni continues: “Breeders now have access to genetic markers that allow their creative insights and technical skills to greatly improve the odds of releasing cultivars that make a real difference both to grower profitability and consumer satisfaction. Imagine: new apple, cherry, peach, and strawberry cultivars with wonderful flavors and textures to drive consumer demand while also having valuable production and postharvest characteristics such as disease resistance and good storability to help growers!”

Want a great example of the long-term legacy of RosBREED? Just check out the cover story of American/Western Fruit Grower’s November/December issue, highlighting the introduction of two new New York apple varieties, and Cornell apple breeder Susan Brown’s continued pursuit of more new varieties.

Kudos to everyone involved in RosBREED. The “official” project is complete, but the results will be felt in the fruit industry for years to come.