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Rutgers’ Plant Breeders: Fighting Hunger and Disease, Bringing Back Jersey Tomato

As part of its 250th anniversary celebration, state’s largest public college will honor its world-renowned program and a cornucopia of vegetables, nuts, and berries

Agricultural scientist Jack Rabin tends to show his enthusiasm when he speaks about the staff at Rutgers University’s plant-breeding program. “Rob Pyne has the most perfume-scented job on God’s earth being a Ph.D. candidate plant breeder of basil,” he’ll say. And, “If Jim Simon were not here and did not have his germplasm collection who would do this for society?”

The obvious ardor of the associate director of farm programs at Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) is contagious. And it makes it difficult to dismiss his assertion that his coworkers’ contributions to the global food pantry are not only groundbreaking but of unassailable importance.

Rabin isn’t exaggerating. Since the mid-19th century, the state’s public land-grant university has emerged as a world leader in developing plants that sustain farmers, resist disease, and preserve heirloom varieties. And that’s just for starters. They also taste better, feed more people, require fewer chemicals, and even have the potential to power a truck. And it continues to accomplish it all on a shrinking budget.

Housed in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, the AES serves as the university’s agricultural research and commercial implementation arm, responsible for myriad programs from plant breeding to 4-H, pest programs to nutritional education. Established in 1880 as the nation’s third experiment station, it now operates 21 county Cooperative Extension offices and 19 research centers and farms around the state. Currently, AES’s research relies on $30 million in annual state and federal funding, plus grant funding and licensing fees and royalties from seeds and its intellectual property.

Increasing costs and declining funding have forced most Northeast universities to mothball their plant-breeding programs. Indeed, Rutgers’ own core AES fiscal year 2014 funding from the state dropped significantly for the fifth successive year. And funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture fell to its lowest level in seven years.

Despite this, the AES spent $93 million on all of its research and programs in the past fiscal year, and New Jersey’s Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher commends its ongoing work.

“Rutgers, as the land-grant university in New Jersey, has a long history of working with our farmers and agricultural enterprises by providing essential research to our various agriculture sectors,” he said in an email.

To celebrate its 250th birthday next year, Rutgers is spotlighting the AES, which in turn is designing a website to highlight a different “all-star” species from its plant-breeding program each month, starting this November. Expect to see recipes, product information and “where to find” guides on successfully engineered products like the Scarlet Knight cranberry, the Jersey Star Venus dogwood, and, yes, the Jersey Tomato.

Heirloom variety: the elusive Jersey tomato

“People seem to have an insatiable demand for the tomatoes of antiquity,” mused Tom Orton one afternoon while reclining in the library of the Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Cumberland County. That’s where this professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology has spent the past five years trying to recreate the tomato that New Jerseyans remember while producing a fruit that’s as hearty, uniform, and attractive as those now demanded by the supermarket industry.

He seems to have struck on something. This summer, Rutgers announced that Orton had cultivated three varieties of market-ready tomatoes that tasted like the branded “Rutgers” (aka “Jersey”) tomato people remember from the 1940s and 1950s. In August, he toured the state to run taste tests and determine which one people liked best. It was the first time in decades that consumers had experienced this texture and flavor tender and sweet, with just the right amount of acid. In the 1960s, the Rutgers tomato was lost because generations of selections had drifted from the original type. But seven years ago, Campbell Soup employees presented Rutgers with some remaining genetic strains in their archives, and Orton went to work.

Transforming a memory into a product wasn’t easy, he explained, adding, “It’s an image not a firm target.”

He’s still struggling to make his new varieties disease-resistant. But he does expect to release seeds for the winning strain in January, and with them bring back to life what he calls “this old-time mythical Jersey flavor that people pine for.”

Disease resistance: fighting off phytophthora in peppers

It was a rainy August afternoon and about a dozen food growers and agricultural company representatives were gathered at Rutgers’ Upper Deerfield research farm to talk about peppers.

Specifically, they were talking about the progress of a Monsanto-funded partnership with Rutgers that seeks to come as close as possible to eradicating phytophthora, a cousin of the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine. It not only rots entire pepper plots but almost always returns year after year.

As a manufacturer of pepper seeds, Monsanto needs to find a way to protect its customers from Phytophthora. So the multinational corporation asked Rutgers -- already well-known for its 40 years of research in this area -- to evaluate its new and pipeline varieties for resistance to the disease. Monsanto provides plant-breeding material to Rutgers, which in turn grows the crops in fields full of Phytophthora -- which costs New Jersey pepper farmers millions of dollars each year -- to see how well they withstand the blight.

“This is a concentrated area of green pepper production for the United States,” said Boyd Carey, Monsanto’s global technology development lead for pepper. “Rutgers has the research capacity that you can’t just find anywhere.”

Three years into this partnership, researchers have grown healthy “Turnpike” variety peppers with the desired “fruit qualities” -- a deep green, glossy color and a size that ranges from extra large to jumbo. But they, along with growers across New Jersey, are battling a greater incidence of devastating bacterial leaf spot, a bacterium they need to breed out.

“There are always challenges,” said Andy Wyenandt, who heads the project. “Not only do the bell peppers need to have phytophthora resistance, they also have to have resistance to bacterial leaf spot, which is becoming more economically important.” “What we learn here helps us understand how to drive our research and development around the world and vice versa,” he added.

High-value crops: growing money on hazelnut trees

With the growing worldwide popularity of Nutella Italian hazelnut-chocolate spread and the emergence of new markets like China for healthy oil-containing nuts, the price of wholesale hazelnuts doubled last year (bad weather in Turkey also contributed). But here in the U.S., only Oregon grows hazelnuts for commercial sale and its farmers are rushing to plant up to 3,000 acres of seedlings every year.

Farmers in the Northeast have tried to grow a strain of European hazelnut trees that produces a suitably large nut since the colonial era but a fungus that causes a lethal disease called Eastern Filbert Blight has felled them each time. In 1996, a Rutgers professor named C. Reed Funk set about trying to hybridize the European tree with native trees. The result was a tree that was resistant to Eastern Filbert Blight, but produced undesirably small nuts with shells too thick for easy cracking. Two decades, the late Funk’s protégé, Thomas Molnar, and his two full-time employees have grown 30 acres of high-yielding hazelnut trees that resist Eastern Filbert Blight and produce high-quality nuts. They’re about to start running trials with New Jersey farmers. “It’s a very low-input crop that doesn’t cost a lot to grow, so the trees can be grown organically or with very few pesticides,” said Molnar, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology. “These nuts really don’t have a lot of problems, and the demand worldwide is outstripping the supply.”

In the beginning, Funk and Molnar couldn’t keep any of their trees alive. But over the years, Molnar went on nut-buying expeditions that took him to rural markets and residential backyards and all over Central Asia, Russia, and Europe. He brought the nuts he collected home for cross-breeding, only to have most of those die, too. But he eventually isolated and cross-pollinated enough desirable characteristics to achieve success.

Now he’s at the point where farmers in New Jersey and points north will plant and test the trees for cold-hardiness. Assuming all goes well, his team will clone several varieties of the plants by grafting them. Rutgers will patent the plant and license a nursery to grow them, collecting royalties on sales. Molnar hopes to have enough plants within three years that farmers can use them to diversify their farms. Within another 3 to 4 years, they should bear enough fruit to sell to farm markets and restaurants, and within 20 years, he hopes to watch the farmers organize into a collective to sell to centralized processing and distribution hubs.

“We would like it to be a big New Jersey focus but they will be able to be grown all over New England,” he said.

Additionally, Molnar’s hazelnuts may one day be used to produce energy. He’s already studying their use as a biofuel and determining that although they may continue to be more profitable as a food crop, hazelnuts have the potential to produce twice the amount of oil per acre as soybeans and don’t have to be planted every year.

Chemical reduction: sweet basil’s downy mildew problem

It doesn’t always take 20 years to get a genetically modified plant to market. For AES basil breeder and Ph.d. candidate Robert Pyne, it’s taken three.

Thanks to basil’s short growth cycle, Pyne and his supervisor, Professor of New-Use Agriculture Jim Simon, started breeding the herb in 2012 for resistance to a global basil killer called downy mildew, and they’ve already reached a point at which they’re comfortable with the stability of their resistance levels Now, they’re just tweaking for aroma, flavor, flowers, and leaf size and shape.

The few fungicides on the market do some good in controlling downy mildew, but according to Pyne, they’re “not overly effective. A really cost-effective way to fight the disease is with genetic resistance. You may not have to spray at all or you can spray less. Either way you’re going to save growers money.”

Because the fast-spreading mildew appeared in the United States as recently as 2007, farmers have been caught off guard. Rutgers scientists say the blight has the power to destroy the basil crop in the eastern part of the country, where it thrives in humid conditions. So in 2011, Rutgers joined three other universities in a $1.8 million USDA-funded campaign to develop downy-mildew-resistant basil. They focus on sweet basil, the variety that’s most commercially in demand and most susceptible to the threat.
Rutgers, which boasts the largest basil-breeding program in the country thanks to Simon’s 30-year odyssey to collect and grow basil, is taking the lead on developing new, resistant varieties and hoping to develop DNA markers that confer disease resistance, along with chemical and cultural controls.

The pathology of this disease is being researched at Cornell University, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and University of Florida. After determining that red, Thai, lemon and spice basils display greater resistance to downy mildew than their sweet counterpart, Simon and Pyne made hundreds of genetic crosses to create basil that is resistant to the disease while maintaining the qualities of the sweet variety in question.

Thanks to the involvement of the University of Florida, the Rutgers team has the rare advantage of sending its samples south for a full-year growing season once it gets too cold in New Jersey to consistently replicate that state’s soggy heat in a greenhouse. Pyne expects to release the first disease-resistant strains next year and the versions with pleasing visual characteristics (a must-have for commercial success) the year after that.

New Jersey has a lot to gain. It ranks in the top five states for sweet basil – the most important commercially and annually grown culinary herb in the nation.

Resource conservation: scoring goals with turfgrass

When the average American hears the word “turf,” he or she likely thinks about touchdowns or soccer goals on grass bred to accommodate a specific style of equipment and play. But when professionals like turf breeder Stacy Bonos think about the “t-word,” they know it encompasses every kind of ground cover that can be mowed. And Rutgers is a turf-breeding powerhouse, boasting the biggest program in the world, as well as one of the oldest -- dating back to 1961.

According to Bonos, Rutgers has been “trying to improve turf grasses for over 50 years. We improve resistance to pests and disease and stress by using genetic improvements so that you don’t have to spray (chemicals).”

During her own career at Rutgers’ Center for Turfgrass Science in New Brunswick, Bonos sought ways to increase drought and salt tolerance so that her grasses can both survive with less watering and withstand the salts present in treated wastewater, so that fresh doesn’t have to be used on golf courses, lawns, and the like.

She and other colleagues travel to Europe, which she calls the “center of diversity of grasses” to bring home new plants and then cross breeds them for stress, pest, and disease resistance and heartiness and studies them without pesticides and fertilizers. Two of the program's achievements include developing new breeds of perennial rye grasses that can fend off the gray leaf spot that attacked these plants in the United States in the 1980s and establishing a variety of bent grasses that can withstand dollar spot disease, which is the main reason for spraying on golf courses.

“There are a lot fewer labor costs, environmental costs and product costs,” she said.

Hunger and health: active asparagus and curative cranberries

When root rot wiped out most of New Jersey’s asparagus crop 30 to 50 years ago, Howard Ellison, who began his tenure heading the university’s asparagus program in 1953 and became one of the most famous breeders of the vegetable, brought it back by engineering some of the most productive and adaptive cultivars in the world.

By making genetic crosses then culturing tissue to produce parent plants that give off seeds, Ellison, his two successors, and their teams, have succeeded in breeding asparagus with strong stalks, tight spear tips, disease resistance and high yield. The last characteristic allow farmers around the world to grow more produce at a lower cost, hence helping to address global hunger.

And when high-production produce doesn’t just resist disease but can actually fight it, all the better. Beginning in 1985, Dr. Nick Vorsa initiated a cranberry-breeding program that he now runs out of the Rutgers’ Philip E. Marucci Blueberry and Cranberry Research Center, where he serves as director.

After propagating more than 20,000 progenies, Vorsa and his staff have released five cranberry varieties that produce more plentifully than the average plant and exhibit an accelerated bed establishment. They’re also studying ways to boost the anti-oxidant levels in the berries. Further, the team’s research led to the discovery that cranberries and blueberries fight urinary tract infections -- now a remedy so common that people joke about the connection.

The progress being made by the plant breeders led Rabin to muse, “The benefits of public plant breeding are so profound: real products to society, fewer chemicals to spray, more people feeding on same amount of ground.”

And yet, Rabin worries deeply about the consequences of defunding these efforts.

“Can it continue? Probably not in our current budget environment,” he warned.

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