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New genomic insights reveal a surprising two-way journey for apple on the Silk Road

Yang Bai

Yang Bai

Yang Bai (Ph.D. Horticulture ’14), post-doctoral scientist at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) is first author of the Nature Communications journal article Genome re-sequencing reveals the history of apple and supports a two-stage model for fruit enlargement  featured in this BIT News article by Alexa Schmitz. Bai’s research was also featured in The Guardian.

Centuries ago, the ancient networks of the Silk Road facilitated a political and economic openness between the nations of Eurasia. But this network also opened pathways for genetic exchange that shaped one of the world’s most popular fruits: the apple. As travelers journeyed east and west along the Silk Road, trading their goods and ideas, they brought with them hitchhiking apple seeds, discarded from the choicest fruit they pulled from wild trees. This early selection would eventually lead to the 7,500 varieties of apple that exist today.

Researchers at Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) have been working hard to excavate the mysteries of the apple’s evolutionary history, and a new publication this week in Nature Communications reveals surprising insights into the genetic exchange that brought us today’s modern, domesticated apple, Malus domestica.

In collaboration with scientists from Cornell University and Shandong Agricultural University in China, the researchers sequenced and compared the genomes of 117 diverse apple accessions, including M. domestica and 23 wild species from North America, Europe, and East and central Asia.

A tale of two roads

The most exciting outcome of this genomic comparison is a comprehensive map of the apple’s evolutionary history. Previous studies have shown that the common apple, Malus domestica arose from the central Asian wild apple, Malus sieversii, with contributions from crabapples along the Silk Road as it was brought west to Europe.

With the results of this new study, the researchers could zoom in on the map for better resolution. “We narrowed down the origin of domesticated apple from very broad central Asia to Kazakhstan area west of Tian Shan Mountain,” explained Zhangjun Fei, BTI professor and lead author of this study.

In addition to pinpointing the western apple’s origin, the authors were excited to discover that the first domesticated apple had also traveled to the east, hybridizing with local wild apples along the way, yielding the ancestors of soft, dessert apples cultivated in China today.

“We pointed out two major evolutionary routes, west and east, along the Silk Road, revealing fruit quality changes in every step along the way,” summarized Fei.

Although wild M. sieversii grows east of Tian Shan Mountain, in the Xinjiang region of China, the ecotype there was never cultivated, and did not contribute to the eastern domesticated hybrid. Instead, it has remained isolated all these centuries, maintaining a pool of diversity yet untapped by human selection. First-author Yang Bai remarked, “it is a hidden jewel for apple breeders to explore further.”

Read the whole article.

silk road map

Meyers, Ph.D. ’11, is new CCE viticulture specialist

James Meyers is the new viticulture and wine specialist covering the 17-county Cornell Cooperative Extension Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program area.

James Meyers is the new viticulture and wine specialist covering the 17-county Cornell Cooperative Extension Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program area.

Press release from Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program (ENYCHP):

The Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program of Cornell Cooperative Extension has announced the hiring of James Meyers as the new viticulture and wine specialist for a 17-county region in the eastern part of New York State. Meyers will provide regional grape growers with a combination of on-the-ground grape production assistance and some high flying technology.

Meyers earned his Ph.D. in Viticulture at Cornell University and has applied a Masters degree in Computer Science from Brown University to his viticultural research. Using satellite imaging and drone technology, Meyers has mapped canopy and vineyard variability to help growers in the Finger Lakes region of New York and in California optimize the efficiency and profitability of their vineyard operations. He will continue the use of that technology in eastern New York.

“Images taken by a drone-mounted camera can be used to identify areas of inconsistency in a vineyard and create variability maps to guide ground level assessments of vine performance for potential remediation such as soil amendments, canopy management activities, or rootstock changes,” Meyers explained. “This technology can also be used to add harvesting and processing efficiency.”

Meyers is introducing himself to growers and learning about their operations in Albany, Clinton, Columbia, Dutchess, Essex, Fulton, Greene, Montgomery, Orange, Putnam, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Ulster, Warren, and Washington counties.

His hiring is timely for the 300-mile eastern NY region that experienced a 34 percent increase in the number of grape-growing operations and a 50 percent increase in grape acres from 2007 to 2012, according to the October 2016 Grape Production in the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Region report issued by the Cornell Cooperative Extension ENYCHP.

Meyers will create and develop an Eastern New York geospatial database of vine performance that will help growers better understand their local climates, track vineyard performance, and adjust decision making for greater productivity and profitability.

“Adding a specialist with Jim’s agricultural and technological skills will maximize Extension learning opportunities in support of the Eastern New York grape industry,” said ENYCHP Small Fruit and Vegetable Team Leader Laura McDermott.

To contact Meyers or any of the other 12 specialists advising commercial fruit and vegetable growers in eastern NY, and to find educational resources, newsletters and pest alerts, visit the ENYCHP website.

Video: 2017 Liberty Hyde Bailey Lecture

If you missed last Friday’s Liberty Hyde Bailey Lecture, From Farm to Fork: How CALS Is Leading the Food Revolution, it’s available online.

This year’s line-up included:

  • Kathryn J. Boor, Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University
  • Christine Smart, Professor, Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology and Interim Director, School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Michael Mazourek, Assistant Professor, Plant Breeding and Genetics and Horticulture Sections, School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Thomas Björkman, Associate Professor, Horticulture Section, School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Courtney Weber, Associate Professor, Horticulture Section, School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Carmen Moraru, Associate Professor, Food Science

Mattson, Whitlow, Bassuk lauded for urban horticulture efforts in PeriodiCALS

Mattson (top) and Whitlow

Horticulture Section faculty Neil Mattson and Tom Whitlow  are among the CALS faculty focusing their efforts on urban agriculture and other innovations that will reap benefits for city dwellers. With varied areas of focus, from climate change to food and social injustice to human health, they and other CALS faculty agree that challenges related to these issues can be traced to the severe lack of space in increasingly population-dense cities. Read more in Sky’s the Limit in the latest issue of PeriodiCALS, the College’s news magazine.

Other horticultural coverage in PeriodiCALS includes:

Seminar video: ‘Seed to Supper’ program: Reaching underserved audiences through garden education

If you missed Monday’s Horticulture Section seminar ‘Seed to Supper’ program: Reaching underserved audiences through garden education  with Christine Hadekel,  Oregon Food Bank, it is available online.

 

More seminar videos: Horticulture | School of Integrative Plant Science

Our Roots Grow Deep: Alumni in Extension

Lindsay Jordan was also a 2013 Dreer Award Winner  who traveled to New Zealand to explore cool-season viticulture practices.

Lindsay Jordan was also a 2013 Dreer Award Winner who traveled to New Zealand to explore cool-season viticulture practices.

This week, CALS News featured two alumni from the Graduate Field of Horticulture.

Liberty Hyde Bailey once described extension work as “a plain, earnest, and continuous effort to meet the needs of the people on their own farms.” Now as extension professionals, viticulture and enology graduates Lindsay Jordan, M.S. ’14, and Justin Scheiner, Ph.D. ’10, use their Cornell experience to apply Bailey’s goal to the grape and wine industry every day.

Jordan and Scheiner’s shared desire to make a tangible difference in the lives of growers belies the fact that they do their work nearly 2,000 miles apart. Both graduate students of the Vanden Heuvel group, Jordan worked on under-vine cover crops for weed management and their impact on grape production during her time at Cornell, and several years earlier, Scheiner examined the connection of methoxypyrazine levels and ‘bell pepper’ aromas to vineyard practices.

Their diverse backgrounds and research interests easily translated into working in extension. Jordan is currently based in California as the University of California Cooperative Extension Area Viticulture Advisor for three counties in the arid San Joaquin Valley, while Scheiner works as an assistant professor and viticulture specialist at Texas A&M University.

“My favorite part has been getting to know my local growers, and getting to participate in applied research that can directly impact growers,” said Jordan. “It’s pretty much the dream.”

Read the whole article.

In the news

Alan Lakso

Alan Lakso

Lakso wins in first USDA Innovations in Food and Agricultural Science and Technology (I-FAST)  prize competition [USDA press release]- The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced November 1 the winners of the first Innovations in Food and Agricultural Science and Technology (I-FAST) $200,000 prize competition. I-FAST helps scientists and engineers broaden the impact of their NIFA-funded research by encouraging collaboration between academia and industry to translate fundamental agricultural innovations into the marketplace. Alan Lakso, emeritus professor in the Horticulture Section, was on of four winners. Lakso  and his Cornell team — including Abe Stroock, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Vinay Pagay, PhD Horticulture ’14, and Michael Santiago, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering graduate student — won for their micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) microtensiometer.

CU in Nature website encourages students to get outside [Cornell Chronicle 2016-11-03] – Students can feel overwhelmed by the pressures associated with getting a top-quality education, but a new website and programming aims – by nature – to lower their stress levels. CUinNature.cornell.edu, which launched this fall, is a clearinghouse for the many natural areas on campus, including theCornell Botanic Gardens, most just a short walk away for students. Don Rakow, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture Section, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is hoping students take advantage of an easily accessible antidote for academic and other stressors.

Geneva project explores ways to improve Northeast grape growing [Station News 2016-10-28] – Jason Londo, adjunct associate professor in the Horticulture Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science and a geneticist in the USDA-ARS Grape Genetics Unit,  is teaming up with researchers from across the country to map genetic traits in grapevine roots in order uncover the ways genes interact with the environment. The research aims to optimize the productivity and environmental resilience of grapevines, potentially pointing to new ways to improve grape growing in the Northeast.

Tech brings value to vineyards [periodiCALS, Vol. 6, Issue 2, 2016] – Each morning, the same question greets Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory Director Terry Bates from his office white board: What are you doing for the grape growers? This summer, the answer has come easily. He’s systematically taking the guesswork out of managing vineyards, with help from a fleet of sensors that see the vineyard more clearly than the human eye.

Liberty Hyde Bailey Lecture video: Genomics and the Future of Agriculture

If you missed Friday’s  Liberty Hyde Bailey Lecture, Genomics and the Future of Agriculture, it’s available online.

The lecture and panel discussion, in honor of professor emeritus Steve Tanksley, winner of the 2016 Japan Prize, featured three former lab members — Greg Martin, Jim Giovannoni, and Susan McCouch — introduced and moderated by Kathryn J. Boor, Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They celebrated Tanksley’s contributions to plant breeding and genetics and the spirit of genomic discovery in the School of Integrative Plant Science with a panel discussion on genomics and the future of agriculture.

Reunion events

Reunion is coming up fast (June 9-12). Mark your calendar for these events of plant science interest:

Tanksley, Martin, Giovannoni, and McCouch

Tanksley, Martin, Giovannoni, and McCouch

In addition, Cornell Plantations will be hosting walks, tours and other events including a plant sale June 11.

Contribute to the Robin Bellinder Graduate Student Fund

Robin Bellinder

Robin Bellinder

From Steve Reiners, Horticulture Section chair:

On November 13, 2015, we received the sad news that our friend and colleague, Robin Bellinder, professor of Horticulture at Cornell University for 31 years and an international expert in weed control in vegetable crops, died unexpectedly. She was 70 years old. Robin died of a pulmonary embolism after a brief hospitalization and stay in a physical rehabilitation clinic for an unrelated spinal injury.

At Cornell, Robin’s research program focused on weed management for vegetable crops. One of few women in her field at that time, she became a national and international leader. She published research results widely in peer reviewed publications, as well as publications that advised growers about her work’s practical applications. She served as president of the Northeastern Weed Science Society and, in 2005, was named the recipient of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences award for outstanding accomplishments in applied research. She will be remembered as a weed scientist who ardently and tirelessly supported New York vegetable growers. Robin had a deep concern for people, whether farmers in South Asia, for whom she championed the introduction of more efficient weed control practices, or hungry families in New York’s southern tier. She initiated Cornell’s efforts to provide fresh fruits and vegetables from the Homer C. Thompson Research Farm to the Food Bank of the Southern Tier. She realized that rather than composting the farm’s edible produce, they could feed hungry area families. Since 2004, as a result of her initiative, Cornell has donated almost 2 million pounds of produce.

Robin will be remembered as an intense, thoughtful, loyal, generous, creative and loving person who tenaciously advocated for the things she believed were important.  Mentoring students and seeing them become leaders around the world provided Robin with great satisfaction.  At the urging of her colleagues, Cornell is proud to announce the establishment of the Robin Bellinder Graduate Student Fund. The fund will be established “to provide financial support for graduate students working on vegetables crops, with a preference given to projects with a weed science emphasis. The fund will be distributed at the discretion of the chair of the horticulture section, and may be used to supplement travel or research expenses for the successful candidates”.

Those interested in supporting the fund should make checks payable to “Cornell University” with “Bellinder Fund, Horticulture” in the memo line. We will be happy to share any notes or messages with Robin’s family. Checks can be sent to:

Chair, Horticulture Section
Cornell University
134 Plant Science Building
Ithaca, NY 14853 USA

Thank you for your support of the Robin Bellinder Graduate Student Fund.

Robin Bellinder (right) with volunteers gleaning potatoes for the Food Bank of the Southern Tier at the Homer C. Thompson Research Farm in 2012.

Robin Bellinder (right) with volunteers gleaning potatoes for the Food Bank of the Southern Tier at the Homer C. Thompson Research Farm in 2012.

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