Research project targets disease-free strawberries

By staff reporter

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Fruit

A new research project into strawberry wilt disease could have
important repercussions for a fruit that remains the most popular
flavour in numerous food and drink categories.

UK-based East Malling Research (EMR), which was awarded a four-year £750,000 from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) this month, is confident that the initiative will bear fruit.

"New varieties with strong resistance to wilt will be a boon to strawberry growers and greatly assist the long term sustainability of strawberry production in the UK,"​ said research team leader David Simpson.

"Consumers will benefit from improved availability of fresh, locally produced strawberries."

Summer fruits sales have continued to grow, and strawberry remains one of the fastest growing fruits in many European markets. A recent Business Insights report found that the leading flavours in products launched between 2004 and 2006 were strawberry, lemon and apple, while a Frost & Sullivan report estimated that the global flavouring market, valued at $4.80 billion in 2005, is likely to touch $6.22 billion in 2012.

Demand for strawberries, a rich source of vitamin C as well as antioxidants like ellagic acid, has increased in the UK, with many supermarkets marketing the fruit as one of nature's superfoods. Indeed, British supermarkets reported at the end of the year that berry sales have been strong - despite adverse weather conditions - due to consumer health trends.

British Summer Fruits (BSF), which supplies over 92 per cent of all soft drinks sold to supermarkets, also reported that there has been an overall increase of 6.8 per cent to 53,000 tonnes of fruit, despite unusually poor weather conditions faced by growers last year.

Disease remains a constant threat however. Strawberry wilt is a widespread and serious soil borne disease caused by the fungal pathogen Verticillium dahliae, and the EMR research team intends to use a genetic approach to study resistance to the disease.

Furthermore, the scientists believe that the timing of the award is crucial, following last year's withdrawal of methyl bromide for soil sterilisation to control the pathogen.

This new project will use the native British wild strawberry as a model to study the genetics of resistance to wilt. Work on the model species will lead to the identification of genes that are responsible for resistance in the cultivated strawberry.

A genetic tool kit will then be developed that can be used by strawberry breeders to produce new varieties that have an effective and stable resistance to wilt.

The strawberry breeding programme at EMR has already produced cultivars with partial resistance to wilt, including Florence and Flamenco, but screening has been based on the development of symptoms in the field and the inheritance of resistance is not understood at the genetic level.

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