WSU scientists awarded national funding for tree fruit genomics research.
Two Washington State University scientists have been awarded major grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Research Initiative to fund projects relating to the genomics of tree fruits.
Dr. Amit Dhingra, molecular biologist, requested $375,000 to further his work in sequencing the apple genome in collaboration with an international consortium involving scientists in South Africa, Italy, New Zealand, and France.
Dr. Cameron Peace, molecular geneticist at WSU, intends to use his grant of $400,000 to study the genes relating to fruit texture in apples.
Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, who is collaborating in Peace's project, said it is unusual for two scientists from the same university department to be awarded National Research Initiative grants. Fewer than 15 percent of submitted proposals are funded.
Dhingra is in the preliminary stages of his apple-sequencing project. "With this funding, we can take the next big leap," he said.
The information generated in apples will be beneficial in the sequencing of other tree fruits, such as pears, peaches, and cherries, he said.
Sequencing alone doesn't explain what the genes do, Dhingra stressed, and he'll be collaborating with other scientists, including Peace, so that information can be transferred to WSU's fruit breeders with the goal of helping them to develop new varieties that can differentiate the Washington tree fruit industry from the rest of the world.
Dhingra said funding of the project provides a huge impetus to develop educational tools to train the next generation of students in the area of horticultural genomics and biotechnology. It also sets the stage for an outreach campaign to let growers know what the scientists are doing in terms of fruit genomics.
Peace said much work has been done over the past decade to identify the genes relating to fruit texture in apples, and three genes that are biochemically linked have continually cropped up.
Although fruit texture is complex and other genes may also play a role, Peace wants to study how those three genes work together.
Two of the three genes (ACS and ACO) are involved in ethylene production and therefore have to do with softening in storage. Once ethylene has been produced, the other gene (endopolygalacturonase) is switched on and that is involved in cell wall degradation and is associated with texture attributes, such as firmness and mealiness. Peace said this project is an extension of work he did at the University of California, Davis, relating to the melting or nonmelting flesh characteristics of peaches.
Peace said identifying the genes associated with fruit firmness and flavor is the highest priority in terms of apple breeding. "Anything we can find out about those particular traits is of immediate value to the breeding program."
Knowledge about the fruit firmness genes will allow genetic markers to be developed to help breeders make selections from the crosses they make. It will also help the industry understand the genetic predisposition of existing cultivars, Peace said.
There are seven other principal investigators in the project: Dr. Fabrizio Costa in Italy; Dr. Eric Van de Weg in the Netherlands; Dr. Sue Gardiner in New Zealand; Dr. Martha Hamblin at Cornell University, New York; Dr. Jim Luby at the University of Minnesota; Dr. Nnadozie Oraguzie at WSU, Prosser; and McFerson. About 20 other scientists worldwide are also collaborating.