Amit Dhingra’s research shows that the new product delays ripening differently than MCP.

Amit Dhingra’s research shows that the new product delays ripening differently than MCP.

An organic compound that has the potential to enhance storability of pears and apples is being patented by the Washington State University Foundation.

Glycinebetaine, a natural product derived from sugar beet molasses, is sold in Europe under the tradename Bluestim to help plants overcome the environmental stresses caused by heat, drought, or cold, and osmotic stress. It is also used to prevent cherry cracking.

Dr. Amit Dhingra, molecular biologist at WSU, has discovered that when the product is applied to pears 30 days before harvest, it can help delay ripening in storage but in a different way from MCP (methylcyclopropene), a product widely used in the tree fruit industry to preserve fruit quality.

Whereas MCP blocks ethylene receptors in the fruit, the sugar beet product stabilizes the chlorophyll, or photosynthetic pigments, in the fruit and has no effect on ethylene. Normally, as fruit ripens, it loses pigments, and so green fruit tends to turn yellow, Dhingra explained. As long as those pigments are maintained by the product, the fruit stays unripe. The product is water soluble and can be sprayed on trees before harvest.

Tests at WSU show that the compound does not prevent the pears from ripening, but keeps them immature and and firmer for a longer time. Treated pears ripen properly after storage. “This product is metabolized inside the cell eventually,” Dhingra explained.

Further research will be done with apples.

Dhingra said the WSU Research Foundation has received a provisional patent for this new use of the product and is pursuing a full utility patent for use on fruits and ­vegetables.

AgroFresh markets MCP under the trade name SmartFresh as a postharvest treatment and has also developed a preharvest MCP product called Harvista. The patent on MCP expires in 2014. MCP is widely used on apples around the world, but has not always produced the desired results on pears. While it can improve the storability of pears, there have been reports of MCP-treated pears losing their ability to ripen after storage.

Tom Kelly, WSU’s technology licensing officer, said the Research Foundation has signed an agreement with AgroFresh to cooperate with WSU scientists to test the new product. Terms of the agreement are confidential.

Dhingra said the university approached four or five different companies, and AgroFresh was the first to be ready to sign the agreement.

It seemed like a good strategic move because of the company’s experience with MCP and its ability to get a product to market quickly, Dhingra said. “I want to move this quickly into the realm where it can be used.”

The product is still available for licensing, according to the foundation.