Researchers recently unveiled the genome of the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), identifying 240 million base pairs that make up its unique flavor and nutrition. This genetic understanding could revolutionize fruits beyond just strawberries; the F. vesca genome is one of the smallest known hereditary codes in the Roseaceae family, a family encompassing thousands of varieties of apples, pears, quince, cherries, and raspberries. The woodland strawberry genome could serve as a starting point for understanding the genetic building blocks of many of the fruits we eat.
Will seed companies be inserting apple genes into cherries in the same way that ocean pout genes have been inserted into salmon or bacteria into potatoes? Does a genomic understanding ultimately precede genetic modification? Not necessarily. As the Associated Press reports:
[Nate Nourse, who runs a plant nursery] hoped the sequencing of the woodland strawberry genome would speed up the breeding process and make more reliable work that he describes now as a crap shoot. But, he said, that work can't include any sort of genetic modification—his customers wouldn't buy it.
In other words, modern genetic technology might hasten classical plant breeding. In the past, selecting plants and evaluating whether a cross effectively passed along desirable genes took years. Having the genome map could allow breeders to tease out whether certain traits result from genes or from the environment. Is a strawberry sweeter because of its makeup or because it received a certain amount of sun? And the hope is that genetic markers will allow breeders to more effectively pick desirable traits and evaluate subsequent crosses faster—sort of like traditional plant breeding on steroids.
The real question is whether these tools will find their way into the right hands. Will they be used for making sweeter, better-tasting fruits. Or will breeders continue the march towards more marketable, more uniform varieties that last longer and can be shipped further? Or perhaps, there's another possibility entirely, which is why I'm curious to read Marcus Wohlsen's new book Biopunk: DIY Scientist Hack the Software of Life. Perhaps, understanding the genome could make it more viable for all of us to make custom strawberries and apples in the confines of their home kitchens.
A schematic diagram showing chromosomal links between wild (F. vesca) and cultivated (Prunus) strawberries from Nature.