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Davis Researchers Have Helped Map The Strawberry Genome, Which Could Lead To Healthier, Tastier Berries

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

For the first time scientists have mapped the DNA of the cultivated strawberry, which they hope will lead the way to breeding disease resistant berries.

Having access to the genetic “roadmap” of the strawberry will help berry growers stave off diseases like Fusarium wilt, which can ravage strawberry fields, according to Steve Knapp, director of the Strawberry Breeding Program at UC Davis and part of the research team on the study.

“You can’t build a house without the foundation,” Knapp says. “So this genome is really the foundation of all the genetics that we need to do to build better strawberries.”

Before this discovery, scientists and industry breeders mainly relied on field observation to figure out which strawberry varieties were susceptible to different diseases, according to Knapp. Now the genome provides a way for researchers to “understand and unravel” the complex genetic links between fruit and disease resistance, he says.  

California consumers are used to finding strawberries at the grocery store all year round. To meet demand, commercial growers cultivate strawberry varieties that hold their shape and travel well so they withstand transport and days of cold storage in the produce aisle.

These berries don’t usually taste as sweet and juicy as those found at farmers markets and roadside stands. That’s because the latter don’t produce a high enough yield for the commercial market. And they can’t withstand much travel.

Knowledge of the strawberry genome may help berry breeders figure out a way to produce strawberry varieties that are more disease resistant and still taste good, too. But it remains to be seen if the berry researchers and the industry will use this newfound genetic roadmap to create a more sustainable strawberry, one that would reduce the use of fumigants in conventional strawberry fields.

An international team of researchers, led by UC Davis and Michigan State University, produced the strawberry genome study, which was published in the journal Nature Genetics. The study was funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and the California Strawberry Commission.

The U.S. leads global strawberry production and 90 percent of the berries are grown along California’s coast. The state’s strawberry industry was valued at $3.1 billion in 2017, according to estimates from the California Department of Food And Agriculture.

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