While it may be hard to fathom, blackberries weren’t always a staple in grocery stores. In fact, many of the berries that we’re accustomed to throwing into our carts today have been developed through trial and error from wild species cultivars. Now, North Carolina is a major player in a partnership between Pairwise, Plant Sciences, Inc., and the USDA to breed even better species of berries, including a newer cross between blackberries and red raspberries known as the caneberry, and to meet the growing demand for healthy food options.
See more: 7 Fun Facts About Blackberries
Dr. Gina Fernandez, N.C. State Extension specialist and berry breeder who has been working in fruit genetics since 2004, explains her job as “combining different plants to create a new plant that has improved traits,” and gives the blackberry as an example. Blackberries weren’t a commercially marketed plant until scientists were able to develop the wild blackberry into a thornless plant. “Selecting progeny that were thornless was a big step in why blackberries took off,” Fernandez says.
According to Fernandez’s colleague, Hamid Ashrafi, they are in the early stages of berry genomics, to determine and characterize the DNA that makes up berries. As an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture Science at N.C. State, Ashrafi’s role is more lab-based and his specialty is blueberries, which have been crossbred for more than 100 years. The goal of the partnership, Ashrafi says, is to develop markers for aspects like flavor, size, disease-resistance and climate tolerance, so that trials of new breeds don’t have to be so extensive.
“Breeding with genomics can help identify the elite individuals in early generations,” says Ashrafi, adding that this practice will eliminate 75% of the amount of plants needed and thus save significantly on land usage.
Fernandez is also excited about the partnership with Pairwise because of the unexpected resources it will provide. “For a company to come and say, ‘We want to work with you and share the data’ is phenomenal,” she says.
So the next time you find yourself putting a selection of berries in your shopping cart, thank the earnest work of berry researchers like Ashrafi and Fernandez. And who knows what the future holds? Your favorite berry could be one that hasn’t even been invented yet. Imagine that!
See more: 5 Fun Facts About Raspberries