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When Dr. Amit Dhingra joined Washington State University seven years ago as a plant genomicist, one thing immediately struck him about the tree fruit industry.

Apples were a 2-billion-dollar high-tech industry, and the cherry industry was also advancing quickly, propelled by new varieties and ­rootstocks.

“These industries are on the move,” he noticed. “But in pears, we had not seen much advance in the last 100 years. It’s an industry which requires more application of knowledge so we can bring in change and transition.”

Dhingra began visiting pear growers and researchers in Washington, Oregon, and California, who together grow the vast majority of the country’s pears, to find out what the major production challenges were. As part of a pear industry sponsored initiative, he invited a team of international pear scientists, including Dr. Stefano Musacchi from the University of Bologna, Italy, to an international workshop in the Pacific Northwest in 2011 to pool their knowledge and develop ideas for future research. (Musacchi has since joined WSU in the new position of pome fruit horticulturist, which is being funded by a special research assessment paid by ­growers.)­

Dhingra then drafted an ambitious research proposal for submission to the federal Specialty Crop Research Initiative. The request would have been for $16 million, with matching funds coming from the industry. Since the total amount available through the SCRI was only $18 million for the entire country, the proposal was not submitted.

But, says Dhingra, something very important was accomplished, and that was to identify what it would take to totally modernize the pear industry. The proposal now serves as a white paper to guide the development of a pear improvement roadmap and has been divided into several smaller research projects that are being ­submitted to various funding agencies.

Dhingra has applied to the federal Agriculture and Food Research Initiative for funding to import pear rootstocks and varieties from abroad that could be used as parent material in a WSU breeding program, which he sees as a priority in terms of addressing industry needs.

Rootstocks

Dwarfing, precocious rootstocks are critical for pear growers to be able to quickly test new varieties and get into production quickly, as apple growers can, Dhingra says. Some solutions will be area-specific and for parts of the Pacific Northwest, winter hardiness would be an important rootstock characteristic.

Also involved in the project is Dr. Kate Evans, WSU pome fruit breeder, who worked with pears in her previous position at East Malling, England.

With some initial funding from the research subcommittee of the Fresh Pear Committee, she is importing rootstock material from England, Italy, and Spain. The material will go through quarantine at the National Clean Plant Network at Prosser, Washington, before it can be used. In the meantime, leaf or DNA samples are being obtained for genetic analysis.

“We know there’s a lot of material out there internationally, but we’re not sure how diverse it is,” Evans said. “If it’s all related and not very diverse, then you don’t need to bring in all of it.”

Evans planted a pear scion trial this spring using material from Dr. Richard Bell’s breeding program at the USDA’s Appalachian Fruit Research Laboratory in Kearneysville, West Virginia, which is the only pear breeding program in the country.

Dhingra points out that the USDA program is far from the “epicenter” of pear production, and its impact has been limited by its distance from the primary pear- producing areas. Ideally, new pear material should be developed and tested in the environment where it will be grown.

Evans’s new planting includes Bell’s latest release called Gem and a number of numbered advanced selections. New pear varieties from Australia will be added to the trial next spring.

Genome

Dhingra led a team of WSU researchers who recently announced they had sequenced the Comice pear genome, as well as the Golden Delicious apple and Stella cherry. This new information sheds light on biochemical regulation pathways for high-priority traits and functions. The next step will be to make associations between genes and fruit traits of interest.

He is also putting together a research proposal focusing on postharvest fruit quality and processing with the aim of increasing pear consumption. The project is designed to help the industry find ways to deliver pears to the consumer in such a way that they have a consistent eating experience, which he also believes is a high priority.

“A pear will never be an apple,” ­Dhingra said. “It’s not a convenient fruit. It’s a delicacy. We have to come up with creative ways and means to inform the public that it represents a separate commodity from the apple that has its own unique place in our cuisine.”