Michigan State University researchers will lead a four-year, $14.4-million grant-funded research project aimed at improving fruit quality, collaborating with nearly a dozen U.S. ­institutions and six international partners.

Dr. Amy Iezzoni, MSU cherry breeder, heads the RosBREED project, aiming to combine emerging DNA sequence and research findings to improve the quality of apples, cherries, peaches, and strawberries—key species in the botanical family Rosaceae. The grant is the largest ever awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative since its inception in 2007.

Iezzoni and researchers from land-grant universities like Washington State University and the University of Minnesota and USDA laboratories will be working to bridge the gap between the recently sequenced genomes of peach, apple, and strawberries and apply it to improve plant breeding of new varieties.

“RosBREED is rooted in our vision that the common ancestral origin of this diverse plant family can be harnessed to leverage knowledge and resources across commodity boundaries,” Iezzoni said in a news release. “This project exploits similarities among the genomes of three fruit-bearing species of RosaceaeMalus (apple), Prunus (peach and cherry), and Fragaria (strawberry)—to develop practical applications. Collectively, these three lineages represent the majority of the fruits produced and consumed in the United States.”

Cameron Peace, a WSU geneticist, is the codirector of the project.

Selective breeding has improved the quality of most rosaceous species in the last 6,000 years, but producers are under constant pressure from international competition, rising input costs, pests, and diseases. The collaborative RosBREED project follows earlier genomic, genetic, and breeding programs funded by USDA that focused on rice, wheat, barley, tomatoes, potatoes, and conifers.