Growing a better apple faster

April 30, 2014

It can take 20 years or more to bring a new apple variety to market. A research partnership between the Ontario Apple Growers and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (Vineland) is hoping to cut that time in half.

Researchers are using information gathered from Vineland’s consumer and sensory research – where tasting panels were asked to identify the apple characteristics they found most appealing – in a variety of ways to help them with their breeding program.

“The work that Vineland is doing to develop new varieties of apples, grown in Ontario, will really help Ontario apple growers compete in the marketplace,” says Kelly Ciceran, General Manager of the Ontario Apple Growers. “Consumer demand for apples is there so we want to make sure we can feed that demand with locally grown, instead of imported varieties.” 

Here’s a look at three ways researchers are using consumer preference information to breed new apples in Ontario.

Global varieties in our back yard

Based on the consumer preference scores, Vineland’s horticulture technology scout Michael Kauzlaric has gathered leading apple varieties from a number of apple breeding programs around the world and brought them to Vineland to be tested in Ontario.

This means researchers will be looking at how well they grow in the southern Ontario climate and looking at the quality of fruit they produce. If they do well, Ontario farmers will be able to grow some of the world’s best varieties right here at home.

A good parent is key

The consumer preference study results are also helping researchers identify apples that will serve as excellent parent varieties for Vineland’s apple breeding program. Dr. Daryl Somers is leading work that is crossing-breeding apple varieties with complementary texture and flavour properties so they can be tested at Vineland’s research farm at Vineland, Ontario.

Of the seedlings they grow, researchers will select the ones that show they can survive Ontario winters – this is known as having “winter hardiness” – and can adapt well to the local climate. In addition, they’ll be looking for seedlings that show resistance to common apple diseases like scab and fire blight. Disease resistance is important because it reduces that amount of crop protection materials a tree will need to produce a healthy crop, which is good for the environment and reduces labour and costs for apple farmers.

Selecting by DNA

Travis Banks, a bioinformatician at Vineland is currently matching up DNA sequences from varieties evaluated by the sensory testing panel with the characteristics the panel’s participants found most appealing. This will allow researchers to predict which natural differences in an apple’s genetic makeup can predict fruit quality scores for texture, taste and flavour long before the young trees even start to produce apples. 

By determining this information early on in the breeding process, apple breeders can ensure they concentrate their efforts on selections that will have the taste, smell and feel that appeal most to consumers.

It can take three to five years for a young seedling to start bearing fruit, so this “short cut” has the ability to dramatically shorten the amount of time apple breeders need to bring new varieties to the market.

Written by Lilian Schaer for Ontario Apple Growers