Cameron Peace, DNA-Informed Breeding Team Leader

Achieving breeding impact has long been the guiding principle of Dr. Sue Gardiner and her team at Plant & Food Research (formerly HortResearch), New Zealand. Sue and colleagues have led fruit breeding innovations such as “fast breeding” and genomic selection. They were the first to implement routine marker-assisted seedling selection in Rosaceae (apple), including the invention and use of streamlined robotics that have spun off into the commercial company Slipstream Automation (with services soon becoming available to the wider Rosaceae community). They’ve also unraveled the genetics of valuable traits – numerous apple disease and pest resistances, red flesh color, fruit aroma, and rootstock-induced dwarfing – and converted the findings into DNA tests that are implemented in their breeding programs. All along the way, engaging in highly collaborative partnerships worldwide, this research group has established fundamental genomics resources and made numerous discoveries… and released new cultivars with substantial world market share.

By delivering practical outcomes on research promises, Sue and colleagues have run counter to the historical culture of Rosaceae genomics. For decades since the advent of modern tools for peering directly at the genetic blueprint of our crops, research funding worldwide was siphoned away from on-the-ground operational breeding, the kind of breeding that develops effective new cultivars that truly revolutionize the production and marketing landscape and consumer experience and health. 

In the name of “genetic improvement”, hot DNA-based techniques with their highly expensive equipment and consumables grabbed the attention of grad students, scientists, research institution directors, and grant-funding agencies. No wonder so many breeders and germplasm collection curators became highly skeptical of the so-called genomics revolution. But the culture is changing. The down-under pioneers of Plant and Food Research, our U.S.-based RosBREED endeavor, and the European-based FruitBreedomics consortium have demonstrated that   genomics research can revolutionize cultivar development.

Breeding impact flows readily from genomics research in the new culture of Rosaceae genomics, genetics, and breeding. Breeding programs are already benefitting directly. By focusing on practical breeding decisions and operations, providing realistic promises, and collaborating worldwide, this ethos will be around for a long time.