With its fertile soil and mild temperatures, Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley has long been famous for its apple harvest. In the future, it could also be known as the online prebreeding centre for apple growers around the world.
A team led by Dalhouise University geneticist Dr. Sean Myles has planted more than 1,000 different varieties of apples – two each, 2,500 seedlings in all, including controls – on a five-acre tract at a research centre in Kentville. The researchers have already begun systematically mapping each variety’s genome, the first step to finding the genes responsible for specific traits related to fruit quality and disease resistance.
The goal is to dramatically reduce the time it takes to produce a new apple cultivar. Traditionally, this has been a laborious, time-consuming, and expensive process. Breeders cross two varieties, plant hundreds of seedlings, then wait years for these offspring to reach maturity before they can evaluate their fruit. Typically only a few trees are chosen for further propagation; the rest are discarded.
Dr. Myles says the vision is for breeders to be able to browse an on-line catalogue listing the genetic profile of each variety, select two to mate, and place an order. Technicians will analyze the offsprings’ DNA while they are still seedlings in the greenhouse, and ship the ones with the desired traits to the grower.
It has been said that if genomes were books, each one would be equivalent to 800 dictionaries. It is no small task then to manage, analyze, and interpret all the information necessary to determine desirable genetic profiles in new cultivars. To make sense of reams of data, Dr. Myles’ team received funding from Genome Canada in 2012 to develop new user-friendly software with applications for other high-diversity crops.