Two bowls of sliced strawberries and a plate of strawberries being held by someone
Steve Knapp, director of the Strawberry Breeding Center, will work on ways to prevent disease from attacking strawberry crops in the future with a $6.2 million grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Photo courtesy UC Davis

Knapp team awarded grant to advance strawberry breeding

$6.2 million NIFA-funded project seeks crop protection

The Strawberry Breeding Center in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences has landed $6.2 million to study how to use breeding and genetic information to protect strawberry crops from future diseases and pests.

The four-year grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture will address expanding and emerging threats to strawberries, a popular fruit packed with vitamin C and key to the diets of many Americans.

Enhanced plant breeding, gene editing and other technologies will help ensure strawberry crops are sustainable in the face of climate change and possible restrictions on chemical use, said Steve Knapp, SBC director and a distinguished professor in the department.

“We need to have the technology so that we can deal with the challenges strawberries face around the world,” Knapp said. “Can we use genetic knowledge to change the DNA in a specific way to get the resistance we need?” 

USDA funding

The grant was one of 25 announced Oct. 5 by NIFA – an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – as part of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative program, which addresses “key challenges of national, regional and multistate importance in sustaining all components of food and agriculture,” the agency said.

The strawberry industry has lagged behind crops like tomato and wheat when it comes to genetic and technical innovation, Knapp said. The grant signifies that “now they want the foot on the accelerator.”

Key priorities are identifying whether changing DNA molecules can improve disease resistance and what technologies would be needed. Ensuring some genes are expressed while others are suppressed would be part of the analysis.

“We’re trying to build in natural resistance to pathogens through the genes that already exist but could be modified with this knowledge,” Knapp said. “If we were able to edit a gene that improves disease resistance, people would want us to use that in breeding.”

The researchers seek to produce disease-resistant cultivars and identify better ways to diagnose, prevent and manage disease. The project will also include an economic forecast evaluating the consequences of production changes and communicating with farmers about the laboratory advances, according to the grant proposal.

Mitchell Feldmann, Marta Bjornson and Juan Debernardi from the Department of Plant Sciences, and Gitta Coaker from the Department of Plant Pathology, are participating in the research, as are scientists from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC Berkeley, California Polytechnic State University, University of Florida and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

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