Helping Maritime apple growers with Genomics

Published: May 21st 2019
Photo Courtesy of Scotian Gold Cooperative Ltd.

With its fertile soil and mild temperatures, Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley has long been famous for its apple harvest. Now, thanks to a recently-announced National Apple Breeding Consortium that  Genome Atlantic helped co-found, apple researchers, growers and marketers will share data that will allow them to bring new varieties to market more quickly – including varieties that grow best in local conditions.

It’s all about genomics. Genomics is a key technology for breeding apples with commercially desirable traits – increasing the likelihood of success in breeding better apple varieties. Genomics reduces the time it takes to develop a new apple variety by allowing breeders to predict what apples will taste like before the trees are fully mature. 

The National Apple Breeding Consortium grew, in part, out of a vision of Dalhousie apple researcher Dr. Sean Myles and a project he led supported by Genome Atlantic. Myles’ vision was simple:  One day, every novel apple tree developed by a breeder will be screened at the seedling stage to determine whether it is a potential winner in one of Canada’s growing regions.  In this manner, apple growers across Canada will end up planting only new varieties anticipated (or predicted) to thrive in their unique growing conditions.  

Over the years, Dr. Myles has collected an enormous amount of genomic data and planted more than 1,000 varieties of apples together with collaborators at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Kentville Research and Development Centre.  It is no small task to manage, analyze and interpret all the information necessary to determine desirable genetic profiles of new varieties. So, Dr. Myles’ team received support from Genome Atlantic and Genome Canada to develop new user-friendly software, now licensed, to enable desirable DNA profiles to be easily identified, removing the guesswork and increasing productivity of apple breeding. 

Imagine if apple researchers across Canada pooled their information and innovations. Enter the National Apple Breeding Consortium, which brings together Canadian researchers, breeders and marketers.  Genome Atlantic and Dr. Myles were instrumental in getting the Consortium off the ground.  (The Consortium co-founders include Genome Atlantic, Genome BC, Ontario Genomics and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.)

“How do we measure what the consumer really wants and then rapidly breed it using genomics? The National Apple Breeding Consortium is particularly well-equipped to tackle this, and it is precisely in this area of “fruit quality genomics” where we feel Nova Scotia and Canada can lead internationally,” says Dr. Myles.

The Consortium aims to streamline apple development in Canada and boost returns to the industry, while increasing consumer satisfaction.  It will also help growers by providing them with  new apple varieties uniquely suited to their growing regions.  

Developing new varieties is important. Witness the success of the Honeycrisp apple which grows well in Nova Scotia.  The big, crisp variety can bring in five times more money for Nova Scotia growers than more traditional varieties grown here and as a result, it has helped to reinvigorate the province’s once-dwindling apple industry.

Continued success for Nova Scotia growers depends on being able to develop the next big apple variety and get it to market quickly.

Scotian Gold Cooperative Ltd., a member of the National Apple Breeding Consortium, believes that finding the right variety for the local growing environment is key.  “It is about finding a variety that is best suited for our unique climate that will allow Nova Scotia growers to produce a superior product,” says Joan Hebb, Tree Fruit Coordinator for Scotian Gold.

Genome Atlantic, in partnership with the National Apple Breeding Consortium, wants to help Maritime apple growers get a head start developing the next generation of successful signature varieties.  Currently, Genome Atlantic is helping the Consortium seek funding for a project led by Dr. Myles, using genomics to improve variety development.