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Research

Genetic marking discovery could ease plant breeders’ work

bruce reisch with grapevines on a sunny day

Bruce Reisch, professor of horticulure and member of the VitsGen2 team at Cornell AgriTech, assesses powdery mildew on chardonnay vines. Photo: Allison Usavage/Cornell University

Cornell Chronicle/CALS News [2020-01-21]

Plant breeders are always striving to develop new varieties that satisfy growers, producers and consumers.

To do this, breeders use genetic markers to bring desirable traits from wild species into their cultivated cousins. Transferring those markers across species has been difficult at best, but a team of grapevine breeders, geneticists and bioinformatic specialists at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York, has come up with a powerful new method.

Their research is detailed in “Haplotyping the Vitis Collinear Core Genome With rhAmpSeq Improves Marker Transferability in a Diverse Genus,” published Jan. 21 in Nature Communications.

The team’s new technique for developing genetic markers improves markers’ transfer rate across grapevine species by leaps and bounds – from 2% to 92%. With it, breeders worldwide can screen their collections and find out immediately which vines have the traits they want – regardless of what varieties they are, where they came from or which species their parents were.

“This new marker development strategy goes well beyond grapes,” said co-author Bruce Reisch, professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and leader of Cornell’s Grapevine Breeding and Genetics Program. “It’s applicable for breeding and genetic studies across different grape breeding programs, plant species and other diverse organisms.”

Read the whole article.

‘Locally grown’ broccoli looks, tastes better to consumers

Thomas Björkman in broccoli field

“Demonstrating that consumers do value ‘locally grown,’ and that the seller gets latitude on price and appearance, are valuable selling points in getting distributors and retailers to take that risk,” Thomas Björkman said.

 

Cornell Chronicle [2019-12-16]:

In blind tests conducted by Cornell researchers, consumers rated a California broccoli tastier and better-looking than a pair of varieties grown in New York.

But the New York broccoli fared much better in a subsequent series of tests. It earned the highest marks for flavor and consumers were willing to pay more for it – on par with the California variety.

What changed?

The second group was told the New York broccoli was “locally grown” in New York state, where the tests were conducted. That information improved consumers’ perceptions of the broccoli and its value compared with the California alternative.

“If you don’t tell the consumers anything, they will penalize the looks and they will even penalize the taste,” said Miguel Gómez, associate professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. “But as soon as you tell them it’s local, it’s the other way around. They like it better – not only how it looks, but also how it tastes.”

Gómez and co-authors Xiaoli Fan, Ph.D. ’17, assistant professor at the University of Alberta, and Phillip Coles, M.S. ’15, professor of practice at Lehigh University, reported their findings in “Willingness to Pay, Quality Perception, and Local Foods: The Case of Broccoli,” published Oct. 4 in Agricultural and Resource Economics Review.

Thomas Björkman, Cornell professor of horticulture at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York, and principal investigator for the Eastern Broccoli Project, served as project director for the experiments.

Read the whole article.

Yale Climate Connections features Bassuk, sustainable landscapes trail

Peterson Lot near Stocking Hall features porous asphalt and a rain garden to reduce runoff.

Peterson Lot near Stocking Hall features porous asphalt and a rain garden to reduce runoff.

Yale Climate Connections is a nonpartisan, multimedia service providing daily broadcast radio programming and original web-based reporting, commentary, and analysis on the issue of climate change. Last week, they featured Nina Bassuk in an episode entitled. A walking trail shows how Cornell is adapting to extreme weather:

“On their way to class, Cornell University students stroll past a garden planted with bayberry and red-twigged dogwood shrubs. But they may not know that this is a rain garden that helps filter and hold water during heavy storms. Cornell horticulture professor Nina Bassuk says the university has been using techniques for sustainable landscapes for a long time, but people didn’t know that they were special in some way.”

Listen to the whole episode:

Learn more about the sustainable landscapes trail.

Moonbeam adds a big bang of flavor to Galaxy tomatoes

Griffiths picking tomatoes

Phillip Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture, picks Moonbeam tomatoes at Cornell AgriTech.

Cornell Chronicle, CALS News [2019-11-06]

Fresh from Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York, the newest grape tomato – Moonbeam – has joined a constellation of tasty, small, heirloom-style tomatoes in the 2020 High Mowing Organic Seeds catalog, released Nov. 1 to home gardeners and commercial growers.

“Moonbeam is a very good eating experience from start to finish … from first bite to aftertaste,” said Phillip Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell AgriTech, who started developing Moonbeam in 2006 and made it a selection in 2011.

Moonbeam is considered a white grape tomato, with a citrus flavor. In the High Mowing catalog, it joins five other small tomatoes in the catalog’s Cornell-developed Galaxy Suite collection: Supernova, a marbled mini-Roma; Midnight Pear, a small, dark pigmented, pear-shape fruit; Comet, a plump, red grape tomato; Sungrazer, an orange colored grape tomato; and Starlight, a slender, finger-shaped, yellow grape tomato.

The High Mowing catalog called Moonbeam a “glowing white, translucent grape tomato with oblong frame and delicious, fruity bite. This remarkable tomato has dramatic visual appeal, especially when added to a small tomato mix. Not only are these white grape tomatoes stunningly unique, they are packed with a tasty punch of unbeatable flavor.”

Beyond taste, Moonbeam is a highly productive grape tomato – with outstanding texture and exceptional looks – that is suited for home gardens, commercial fields and high tunnels, said Griffiths. It has a good shelf life and it is less likely to split.

Read the whole article.

Toward Sustainability Foundation grant deadline is Dec. 6

For two decades, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has bolstered its sustainability research with a steady stream of gifts from the Toward Sustainability Foundation (TSF), a Massachusetts-based organization founded by an anonymous, eco-minded Cornell alumna.

Since 1999, TSF provided more than $1.5 million in funding for more than 100 faculty and student projects administered through the Horticulture Section that examine the technological, social, political, and economic elements of sustainable agriculture.

The deadline for proposals for the 2020 round of funding is December 6, 2019.

Read more about TSF grants, download the full Request for Proposals, and view titles and contacts of recent projects.

Entomologist Scott McArt lead session on pollinator-friendly gardens at Bluegrass Lane.

Entomologist Scott McArt leads a session on pollinator-friendly gardens at the Cornell Floriculture Field Day at Bluegrass Lane. McArt was a co-PI for the TSF-funded project, Assessing methods for and benefits of establishing beneficial insect habitat for growers and gardeners.

Eastern Broccoli Project on track to meet $100M goal

Thomas Bjorkman, professor of horticulture poses with an heirloom style broccoli that he is researching to understand the multitude of broccoli genes available for breeding purposes.

Thomas Bjorkman, professor of horticulture poses with an heirloom style broccoli that he is researching to understand the multitude of broccoli genes available for breeding purposes. Photo: Allison Usavage/Cornell University

By Krishna Ramanujan, Cornell Chronicle [2019-10-17]:

The Eastern Broccoli Project began in 2010 with the goal of growing a $100 million broccoli industry in the Eastern U.S. in 10 years. Currently, the industry is valued at around $90 million and, with two remaining years of funding, Cornell researchers say they are on schedule to meet their goal.

“I think we’re going to hit it,” said Thomas Björkman, Cornell professor of horticulture and the project’s principal investigator.

Between 2012 and 2017, the number of New York state broccoli farms increased from 290 to 535, and the number of Eastern Seaboard broccoli farms doubled. Yet about 85% of the broccoli consumed annually on the East Coast is shipped from California and Mexico, even with widespread enthusiasm for locally grown foods.

One challenge of growing broccoli in the East is that the plant was originally cultivated as a winter vegetable in Mediterranean climates, so trying to grow it in the Eastern U.S. summer – when summer nights exceed 65 degrees Fahrenheit – ends up confusing the plant’s developmental cues.

At such temperatures, the flower buds and heads often grow unevenly, and while perfectly edible, do not look the same as West Coast broccoli. “It’s not at all marketable; you would never see it in a store,” Björkman said.

This year, two new papers clarify issues that should further help to grow the Eastern broccoli industry.

The first paper, a marketing study, “Produce Buyer Quality Requirements to Form an Eastern Broccoli Industry,” was published in the Journal of Food Distribution Research in March.

In the study, the authors – including Philip Coles (MS ’15), professor of practice in the College of Business and Economics at Lehigh University; Miguel Gómez, associate professor at Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; and Björkman – surveyed a group of influential wholesale buyers (those who buy on behalf of supermarkets and are the gatekeepers of quality standards, as opposed to consumers) to gauge whether a growing appetite for local foods might outweigh the fact that Eastern broccoli looks a little different from Western broccoli, which is the industry standard. Though Eastern-adapted varieties are still of high quality, they can have a lighter color or larger flower buds than West Coast varieties.

At the same time, sales of local foods increased from $5 billion to $12 billion between 2008 and 2014, according to Packaged Facts, a food industry research firm.

Read the whole article.

Michael Rosato: Creating a more sustainable and affordable future for New York growers

Mike Rosato and others harvesting snap peas in research plots at Cornell AgriTech

Michael Rosato, a graduate student studying under the guidance of Steve Reiners, professor and chair of the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, is evaluating the soil sulfur levels on vegetable farms across New York State and conducting sulfur fertilizer trails that have economically important crops for growers. Above, Rosato, center, harvests snap peas at Cornell AgriTech with summer field workers, Christine Driscoll, Kim Day and Luke Czadzeck. Photo by Justin James Muir

CALS News [2019-08-23]:

Michael Rosato is a graduate student studying under the guidance of Steve Reiners, professor and chair of the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science.

What drew you to the program with Steve Reiners?

I first worked in Steve Reiner’s program at the beginning of my undergraduate years as a summer technician. Steve always took the time to answer questions and helped me explore the world of horticulture. Beyond being a true mentor, seeing how his worked helped growers—both with sustainability and success—was a big reason why I wanted to work with him.

What’s the focus of your research?

Historically, sulfur has been abundant in soils mainly due to widespread pollution and the use of manure. In the 1970s, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act led to a gradual but drastic reduction in atmospheric sulfur, and thus, less sulfur was deposited in U.S. soils.

My project has two key elements. First, we are evaluating soil sulfur levels on vegetable farms across New York State, and second, we are also conducting sulfur fertilizer trials that have economically important crops for growers. We are measuring both yield and quality factors across all crops.

In our tomato trial, we are conducting sensory evaluations, as well as testing soluble solids and titratable acids to see if sulfur may be impacting flavor.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve discovered while doing research at Cornell AgriTech?

In our first sensory evaluation, a panel of 100 participants generally rated sulfur-treated tomatoes as more acidic. Their observations were mirrored in our measurements of citric acid in the fruit.

Sulfur is a macro-nutrient that may impact the flavor of vegetables like tomato and onions, but it is often overlooked. If growers can add flavor intensity to their tomatoes by using a sulfur source like gypsum, which is cheap, easily applied and has the option of being organic, it’s a win for the farmer and the consumer.

In what ways do you hope your research will help growers in New York?

By measuring soil sulfur levels state-wide, we hope to get a better idea of how common sulfur deficiencies are. Further, we want to create accurate fertilizer recommendations for growers, so they can produce the highest quality products possible in both an affordable and sustainable way.

How do you think graduate students benefit from doing translational research?

Working on real life issues and seeing your efforts positively impact others’ lives is an important experience for all of us, and it’s truly fulfilling. I think translational research is a place where people can find purpose in helping others in any variety of ways.

Knowing berry pests’ varied diets may help control them

Spotted-wing drosophila on a blueberry

Spotted-wing drosophila cause billions of dollars in damage to fruit crops across Asia, North and South America, and Europe.

Cornell Chronicle [2019-08-06]

With New York state’s $20 million berry industry entering peak season, an invasive fruit fly is thriving.

Female spotted-wing drosophila (Drosophila suzukii Matsumura) have a special ovipositor (a tube through which a female insect deposits eggs) with a saw-like end that allows them to cut into soft fruits and insert their eggs. The larvae and adults feed on the fruits, causing billions of dollars in damage across Asia, North and South America, and Europe.

But little has been known about how the pests survive before and after the growing season.

A Cornell study, published in May in Ecological Entomology, investigates for the first time what spotted-wing drosophila adults and larvae eat, and where they lay their eggs, when these short-lived fruits are not in season.

“They will lay eggs and successfully develop on less preferred resources and not the typical fruit that we think they prefer,” said Greg Loeb, professor of entomology at Cornell AgriTech and a co-author of the paper. Dara Stockton, a postdoctoral associate in Loeb’s lab, is the paper’s first author.

Read the whole article.

Schumer announces funding for hemp seed bank at Cornell

Larry Smart, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Sciences, examines industrial hemp in a greenhouse.

Larry Smart, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Sciences, examines industrial hemp in a greenhouse.

Cornell Chronicle [2019-08-05]:

The 2018 Farm Bill changed federal policy regarding industrial hemp, including the removal of hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and the consideration of hemp as an agricultural product.

The change created an agricultural opportunity potentially worth billions of dollars, and thanks to a big push from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Cornell will play a major research role as that industry grows.

On Aug. 2, Schumer announced $500,000 in federal funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) to create the nation’s only industrial hemp germplasm repository – a seed bank – co-located at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York. This funding, part of the Fiscal Year 2019 Omnibus Spending Package, builds on Schumer’s contributions to the 2018 Farm Bill.

“I fought tooth and nail to secure this federal funding,” said Schumer, the senate minority leader, “while also working to strip back the burdensome federal restrictions that held our farmers and growers back from growing industrial hemp as an agriculture commodity, because I knew the potential this crop had to transform the upstate New York economy.”

Industrial hemp is used to make a wide range of products, including fibers, textiles, paper, construction materials, cosmetics and food.

“The hemp seed bank and the research potential it gives our Cornell and USDA-ARS scientists will be vital resources for New York state farmers,” said Kathryn J. Boor ’80 , the Ronald P. Lynch Dean at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We are grateful to Sen. Schumer for his hard work to secure this federal funding.”

Larry Smart, professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Sciences (SIPS), said the hemp repository is a desperately needed resource. The seed bank will enable researchers to identify pest-resistant and disease-resistant genes, giving them the tools to breed new varieties. Getting to the root of crop health, Smart said, is essential for providing better resources to New York hemp growers.

Read the whole article.

Susan Brown named American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) fellow

CALS News [2019-07-25]:

Susan Brown with apples

On July 22, Susan Brown, head of Cornell’s apple breeding program and the Herman M. Cohn Professor of Agriculture and Life Science, was named a fellow of the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) for her outstanding contributions to horticulture through her research, teaching, extension work and leadership in the horticulture industry. Above, Brown holds an apple variety she developed.

In New York, apples are big business: the state’s 600 commercial growers produce an average of 30 million bushels annually, making it the second-largest apple producer in the U.S. But growing apples isn’t easy, and much has changed since Cornell began its breeding program roughly 115 years ago. Cornell’s program, one of the largest in the world, has released 66 apples, including the well-known Cortland, Jonagold, and Empire varieties.

But just over the past decade, public and private breeders have sped up the pace of release of new varieties—patenting hundreds of consumer-friendly apples, many trademarked, that are beginning to take a bite out of older varieties’ sales.

Enter Susan Brown, head of Cornell’s apple breeding program and the Herman M. Cohn Professor of Agriculture and Life Science. Brown has dedicated her professional career to using molecular marker-assisted breeding to develop important apple varieties that provide the best appearance, flavor, growing characteristics, and highest prices for New York growers and those in other temperate North American and international regions.

On July 22, she was named a fellow of the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) for her outstanding contributions to horticulture through her research, teaching, extension work and leadership in the horticulture industry.

Brown excels at meeting consumer and grower needs through plant breeding. Her research on the genetic control of tree form led to the development of trees that combine high yield with less labor, as well as those uniquely suited as ornamentals. And she has laid the groundwork for future advances with her research on the underlying biological mechanisms of phenolic synthesis, disease resistance genes, fruit texture and flavor, as well as the apple’s nutritional properties, plant architecture, and cross-pollination peculiarities.

Brown has published 64 research articles, 60 outreach publications, nine book chapters, and holds nine U.S. plant patents: four sweet cherries, one tart cherry, and four apple varieties. Her two most recent releases, in 2011, introduced growers to SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™—apples that combine superior eating quality with high disease resistance and packout, which means that more market-ready fruit can be picked from each tree at one time. After more than a decade in development, consumers got their first taste in 2013 and Brown said demand has been exceptional for both.

Brown picks apples in a Cornell AgriTech orchard.

Brown picks apples in a Cornell AgriTech orchard.

“Susan has been breeding for the apples you wish you could have. She’s meeting the needs of everyone involved to get consumers better apples,” said Thomas Björkman, professor of vegetable crop physiology in the School of Integrative Plant Sciences, and also an ASHS fellow. “They have great texture and flavor plus disease resistance, which is critical for growers and valuable environmentally. Efficient tree form makes the economics work. Storage ability means a more marketable apple that people can enjoy for more of the year. Nobody else puts all the pieces together like that.”

Joy Crist of Crist Brothers Orchards in Walden, New York, said Brown’s work is crucial for her farm and all New York growers’ sustainability. Crist Brothers is a member of Crunch Time Apple Growers, a cooperative owned by growers that was formed in 2010 solely to manage and market the SnapDragon™ and RubyFrost™ varieties. The cooperative now has 147 growers representing 60 percent of New York’s apple production.

“We’re vying for shelf space in grocery stores with other club varieties. You have to have an apple that looks good and holds up to harsh handling,” Crist said. “The value of Susan’s work is keeping agriculture viable in New York state by growing something that’s appealing to customers, so they choose apples instead of other fruit. Without these new varieties, I don’t see how we’d be able to compete.”

Brown also has helped ensure that Cornell remains a leader in agricultural research and extension, and that its students can compete. She was former director of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (now Cornell AgriTech) and has advised dozens of graduate students, mentored undergraduates in Cornell’s Summer Scholars program, and speaks regularly to anyone who loves apples as much as she does—including garden clubs, nurserymen and researchers.

“The society considers fellows to be the ‘best of the best’ that bring honor and prestige to the organization,” said Michael Neff, ASHS executive director. “I’m pleased to see Dr. Brown recognized as a fellow of ASHS this year. She and her colleagues in this 55th class of ASHS fellows exemplify professionalism in horticulture and are richly deserving of this signal honor of the society.”

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