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N.C. State genetics scientists awarded $12.8M to improve blueberries, cranberries

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A trio of scientists at N.C. State University received $12.8 million to genetically improve the quality and attributes of blueberries and cranberries, according to a university release.

Massimo Iorizzo, Mary Ann Lila and Penelope Perkins-Veazie were awarded a four-year, $6.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture along with secured matching funds for the Vaccinium Coordinated Agricultural Project (or VacCAP). Iorizzo will lead the project at the Plants for Human Health Institute, which is located at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.

The team is looking to solve issues facing the two berry markets due to rapid shifts in demand for higher quality products and stricter regulations.

N.C. State University

Dr. Mary Ann Lila, left; Dr. Massimo Iorizzo, center; and Dr. Penelope Perkins-Veazie, left, collaborate on advanced methods for improving traits of blueberries and cranberries.

The primary goal is to improve traits of the fruits including taste, appearance, quality, disease resistance and increase their phytonutrients, which are natural chemicals produced in plants to protect from things such as UV rays and insect attacks. They plan to do it by using genetic resources and tools to edit the DNA makeup of the fruits. By improving the berries genetically, the team looks to improve production efficiency, handling and processing and profitability in the future. 

The domestic wholesale value of the US Vaccinium industry, the botanical species of both berries, exceeds $2 billion annually. While production and consumption is growing worldwide, U.S. production growth has slowed in the past five years, according to the release.

The cranberry industry has faced headwinds due to a shift in demand from juice to higher-value products, such as sweetened dried cranberries. This requires more stringent parameters that result in 20% of production being diverted to the lower-valued juice concentrate market.

A recent Global Blueberry Statistics Intelligence Report (GBSI) found fruit quality has risen in importance among consumers. The current blueberry cultivars often produce fresh market fruit and inconsistent sensory profiles, such as firmness, crispness and sweetness, that don’t align with consumer preferences, which limits growth potential in a high value market. Another issue is the industry’s need to switch to mechanical harvesting, rather than by hand. Hand harvesting accounts for up to 50-80% of production costs, but farmers can’t produce berries firm enough to pass market quality after being handled less-than-delicate machinery.

N.C. State University

Dr. Massimo Iorizzo uses a texture analyzer to evaluate fruit firmness.

Using DNA-based information is an uncommon practice in blueberry and cranberry breeding programs. “In 2015, when I joined this community, it was clear to me and many others that there was a need to secure the funds to develop a … project that could advance genetic discoveries with potential applications in breeding programs,” Iorizzo says.

The project is part of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which funds multiyear, multi-institutional collaborative projects. In addition to the three N.C. State scientists, the project involves researchers from seven U.S. academic institutions,  three U.S.D.A. research centers and three international research partners.

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