The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded a four-year, $1.13 million grant, including matching funds, to Michigan State University assistant professor Patrick Edger, to improve blueberry and cranberry fruit quality traits. 

According to MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Edger’s lab is working to generate the first pangenome, the entire set of genes present in a species, for the genus Vaccinium, which includes blueberries and cranberries. Called the Vaccinium Coordinated Agricultural Project, or VacCAP, it will help guide future breeding efforts for blueberries and cranberries and includes a network of collaborators throughout the United States.

Along with doctoral student Alan Yocca, Edger is working to generate genomes for 24 blueberry cultivars and 12 cranberry cultivars. By building a pangenome, they hope to identify new genes that could ultimately yield a firmer, more flavorful and aromatic blueberry. Firm fruit is easier to machine harvest, and machine harvesting can help blueberry growers increase profit margins. 

Edger and Yocca conducted a national survey of more than 500 growers, breeders, processors and others in the blueberry industry. Machine harvestability was a top priority across all regions throughout the U.S. Labor costs for hand harvesting account for more than half of production costs, according to MSU.

“For years we have mechanically harvested for the processing market, but unveiling a blueberry bush that produces fruit that ripens more uniformly, and firmer, will undoubtedly be more suitable for machine harvest,” Kevin Robson, executive director of the Michigan Blueberry Commission, said in a statement. “We look forward to seeing the results of this research project, and how it will help make Michigan’s blueberry industry more sustainable.”

by Matt Milkovich