Talking Biotech is a weekly podcast that uncovers the stories, ideas and research of people at the frontier of biology and engineering. Each episode explores how science and technology will transform agriculture, protect the environment, and feed 10 billion people by 2050. Interviews are led by Dr. Kevin Folta, professor of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida.
I was intrigued by the title of Episode 343: Breeding the Next Amazing Apple. This episode has Dr Folta interviewing Cornell researcher Dr. Awais Khan, an expert in apples. I love apples, and have picked them in both upstate New York, and Washington State, so I was curious to hear what Dr. Khan had to say about my favorite fruit.
Well, turns out that commercial apple trees are all grafts. There is a root stock that comes from a species that is as resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses as possible, and then a graft with the best mix of commercial traits possible is added in order to grow the tree that ultimately produces the fruit. The challenge, however, is that the genetics of resistance to insects, or fungal, viral and bacterial infections, tends to be found in "wild" crab apple species of trees. However those trees do not produce apples that taste good, or hold up well in the long chain of steps that take an apple from a tree to the consumers' plate. And cross-breeding apple species can take decades as apple trees do not produce fruit until they are 5-7 years, which is a long time to wait in order to see if the fruit looks and tastes good!
Dr. Khan is working on a process to use a transgene to reduce "juvenile" stage (non-fruiting) to only one year. But, since transgenic fruit is problematic for many consumers, he is engineering the process so that after determining which crosses were successful, he will then be able to select against the transgene and breed it back out of the new cross--so that the new cross will have disease resistance, good commercial appeal, and NOT be transgenic.
It was a very interesting podcast, and there are plenty more on the website--give one a try!