The $6.2 million grant centers on protecting crops in the future
The federal government is awarding $6.2 million to University of California, Davis, to study how to use breeding and genetic information to protect strawberry crops from future diseases and pests.
The four-year grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) centers on addressing expanding and emerging threats to strawberries, a popular fruit packed with Vitamin C and key to the diets of many Americans.
Enhanced plant breeding, gene editing and other technologies will be key to ensuring strawberry crops are sustainable in the face of climate change and possible restrictions on chemical use, said Steve Knapp, director of the Strawberry Breeding Center and a distinguished professor in the Department of Plant Sciences.
“We need to have the technology so that we can deal with the challenges strawberries face around the world,” Knapp said. “Can we use genetic knowledge to change the DNA in a specific way to get the resistance we need?”
The grant award was one of 25 announced Oct. 5 by NIFA – an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – as part of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative program, which addresses “key challenges of national, regional and multistate importance in sustaining all components of food and agriculture…,” the agency said.
The strawberry industry has lagged behind crops like tomato and wheat when it comes to genetic and technical innovation, Knapp said, and the grant signifies that “now they want the foot on the accelerator.”
A key priority is identifying whether changing DNA molecules can improve disease resistance and what technologies would be needed. Ensuring some genes are expressed while others are suppressed would be part of the analysis.
“We're trying to build in natural resistance to pathogens through the genes that already exist but could be modified with this knowledge,” Knapp said. “If we were able to edit a gene that improves disease resistance, people would want us to use that in breeding.”
The intent is to produce disease-resistant cultivars and identify better ways to diagnose, prevent and manage disease. The research project will also include an economic forecast evaluating the consequences of production changes and communicating with farmers about the laboratory advances, according to the grant proposal.
Gitta Coaker from plant pathology and Mitchell Feldmann, Marta Bjornson and Juan Debernardi from plant sciences are participating in the research, as are scientists from California Polytechnic State University, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC Berkeley, University of Florida and USDA's Agricultural Research Service.