Cherry breeding at East Malling Research Center in the United Kingdom will continue thanks to a three-way partnership involving East Malling Research, an international nursery group, and a produce marketing company.

Dr. Felicidad Fernández Fernández, plant breeder and molecular geneticist at East Malling Research, said that public funding for cherry breeding at the center ended in 2009 and without the new arrangement, it would not be possible to continue the effort to develop new cherry cultivars. The other two organizations involved in the new agreement are the Associated International Group of ­Nurseries, Inc., and Univeg Katopé UK ­Limited.

East Malling has a long history of cherry breeding, starting with a focus on rootstocks in the 1920s, Fernández reports. Four cherry rootstocks were developed from that effort: F12/1, which was released in 1924; Colt, released in 1977; Cob, released in 1980; and Charger, released in 1986.

Between 1981 and 1984, the cherry scion-breeding program at the John Innes Institute in Norwich, England, was transferred to East Malling where Dr. Kenneth Tobutt supervised the establishment of a diverse gene bank for sweet cherry. The scion program, funded by the U.K. Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, aimed to introduce varieties that would be self fertile and resistant to pests and diseases, and would extend the cherry season. Penny, a large, black cherry that ripens in late August, was released in 2001 and is extensively planted in the United Kingdom. Zoe was released in 2009.

Increasing demand

Fernández said demand for U.K.-grown cherries continues to increase, and growers and retailers would like to supply the market with U.K. cherries for as long as possible. Breeding program objectives are being developed in conjunction with growers and retailers.

East Malling Research uses conventional breeding techniques, but uses DNA markers to determine the pollination group, which indicates whether genotypes are self compatible or not. DNA markers are also used for fingerprinting, to confirm the pedigree and verify propagation. Fernández hopes in the future to use markers when selecting for certain traits, also.

The AIGN will have exclusive rights to propagate varieties coming from the ­program in the regions where it has member nurseries: Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, China, and the United States. For other regions, the management team (AIGN, Univeg, and EMR) will decide who will propagate them.

Richard Isaacs, spokesperson for ­Univeg, which supplies fresh fruit and vegetables to major retail, foodservice, and wholesale companies in the United Kingdom, said when varieties are released, his company will have a big input in decisions about how they are commercialized, but the three members of the management team will make the decisions together.

“Growers should know that they will have priority access to future East Malling varieties if they are working with Univeg,” Isaacs said, “but it should also be made clear that they will not have unrealistic or unworkable restrictions placed on them if they do plant these varieties on a ­commercial scale.

“It has to work for all parties, and we will work out the details for each region/ grower when the time comes to make licensing agreements,” he added.