The quest for the best blueberry begins with genetic building blocks that Michigan State University researchers are studying in a USDA-funded project to boost yield, enhance flavor and resist pests.
“The perfect blueberry is high yielding and has a superior taste and aroma,” said Patrick Edger, an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Horticulture. “It also has to have an exceptional shelf life and should be sufficiently firm to permit machine harvesting.”
The more Edger and his team know about the blueberry genome, the better blueberry cultivars, or plants, they can develop in the breeding program. The goal of the recently funded four-year, $1.13 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture project is to discover the maximum number of genes that impact fruit quality.
“We can only target the genes that are in our genomic platform used for guiding our breeding efforts. If there is a gene that greatly impacts fruit quality, but not in our genomic platform, we cannot use it in our breeding pipeline.”
But it takes time to untangle which genes are linked to which traits in a fruit that has a wide variety of flavors and aromas. Luckily, polyploid species are Edger’s area of expertise. Only a select subset of unique blueberry flavor profiles are sold in stores or farmers markets.
Edger and his team are passionate about polyploids and how this affects desirable or undesirable traits in blueberry plants. His lab has been developing genomic tools that are tailored to polyploids, specifically for blueberry and strawberry.
The research effort starts by understanding the underlying genetics that encodes the most desirable traits. Humans inherit one set of chromosomes from each parent and have what is called a diploid genome, but cultivated Northern Highbush Blueberry or Vaccinium corymbosum are polyploid which means they inherit a total of four complete sets of chromosomes.
It is not an easy or quick process so in the next five years, Edger’s lab will continue to uncover the underlying genetics encoding favorable traits in blueberries, ranging from superior fruit quality to improved disease and insect resistance. The top priorities for blueberry growers are fruit quality and resistance to the blueberry stem gall wasp, both which researchers are already working on. Once a new blueberry cultivar has been developed, the next step is patenting.
“We simultaneously use this information to guide breeding efforts; foremost to address the various challenges faced by the Michigan blueberry industry,” Edger said. “On average, maybe one in 10,000 individuals that we trial in the field will be ultimately released as a new cultivar. MSU currently has seven active blueberry patents and several more in the pipeline that could eventually be awarded patents.”