Good Fruit Grower

November 2011

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South Carolina peach breeder wants better peaches, faster by Richard Lehnert O Ksenija Gasic heads Clemson University's peach-breeding program, which was recently revived after a 25-year hiatus. ne of the great things about being a peach breeder in a new peach breeding program is no hangover—nothing left, no seedlings to evaluate, no big shoes to fill. That's the situation Dr. Ksenija Gasic finds herself in. She came to Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, in 2008 to restart a peach breeding program that had been dormant for 25 years. That upside is also a downside. Since it takes about three years from seeds to fruit, just this year she began evaluating seedlings from crosses she made in her first year at Clemson. "I'm just getting ready for orchard work," she said in early May. When Good Fruit Grower visited and saw her new plantings on May 19, the earliest peaches were just ripening. "Peaches bloomed about two weeks earlier than usual this year," she said. She had about 1,200 new seedlings to look at this spring. RosBREED There are other upsides to being brand new in South Carolina. As the peach breeder in the second largest peach-producing state (behind California), there's plenty of grower enthusiasm for what she's doing, not just in South Carolina but across the Southeast in general. There are four other peach breed- ing programs serving the Southeast—William (Dick) Okie's USDA program at the Southeast Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory in Byron, Georgia; Ralph Scorza's USDA program at the Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia; John Clark's program at the University of Arkansas; and Jose Chaparro's program at University of Florida in Gainesville. "It's a great time to be a peach breeder," Gasic said. She's part of the RosBREED project (, which is bringing U.S. Rosaceae breeders together. Rosaceae include several species, including apples, sweet and tart cherries, peaches, and strawberries. It is thought that all these species share genes; the gene that makes an apple red makes a cherry red or a peach red, too. "As the peach breeder in a new program, I'm in excel- lent position to use RosBREED information right from the start," she said. A major goal of the four-year project, which was funded two years ago at $14.4 million (with half coming from state resources and the other half from the federal Specialty Crop Research Initiative), is devoted to the search to identify locations of genes that govern specific fruit quality traits, to find markers for them, and then to find tests that will locate those markers easily. "RosBREED focuses on bridging the gap between genomics knowledge and breeding application," Gasic said. "I'm a peach breeder. I create the trees. What I need is a more efficient way to evaluate new seedlings and remove unwanted hybrids while they are still in the greenhouse and never actually plant them in the field or have to wait for the fruit." DNA The specific tools she would like are lab methods that could evaluate the DNA in a young plant and look for a particular string of nucleotides associated with a trait of interest. "We need a user-friendly test that can tell us, yes or no, does this seedling have this trait," she said. For some traits, like disease resistance, it may be gov- erned by one gene and thus the answer could be, yes or no. It is qualitative. Other traits, like fruit flavor, are quan- titative. "Many genes contribute to the trait," she said. "Maybe only 60 percent of a trait is explained by one or a few markers. That's still very useful information." For some of the fruit quality traits she's looking for— fruit firmness, texture, and flavor—markers have already been found. "The entire peach genome has been 36 NOVEMBER 2011 GOOD FRUIT GROWER richardlehnert

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