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Saturday, June 12, 2021
NEWS  |  CAMPUS

UF Blueberry Lab aims to create a better berry

The Blueberry Breeding and Genomics Lab develops blueberries fit for the Florida heat

Graphic by Shelby Cotta
Graphic by Shelby Cotta

Firm, plump, smooth-skinned, juicy and sweet: the perfect blueberry. Great in smoothies, muffins and cobblers. But not everyone knows the unassuming fruit on their plate has been meticulously researched and cultivated before it even made it to the grocery store shelves.

The UF/IFAS Blueberry Breeding and Genomics Lab is responsible for breeding and cultivating many varieties of the beloved blueberry. Patricio Muñoz, an assistant professor at UF’s Horticultural Science Department, is the principal investigator at the lab. 

He said the lab has two main goals. 

“One of them is to develop new varieties for the state, in the southeast market of blueberries. The second one is to perform genetics, genomics and molecular research to do better the first goal,” Munoz said.

The Blueberry Breeding and Genomics Lab is one of many plant breeding programs affiliated with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science. Others include the Citrus Research and Education Center, located at Lake Alfred, and a peanut-breeding program.

The lab began in the 1940s when blueberries could not be grown in Florida because of the heat and humidity. Plant breeders at UF worked with the Department of Agriculture to find a solution and create a hybrid berry that could thrive in the harsh southern weather, the Sharpblue and Flordablue varieties.

Muñoz is the latest in a long line of passionate plant breeders who found a home at the Blueberry Breeding and Genomics Lab. His background is in forestry, but he turned to blueberries because of their biological components.

“Blueberries are a dream for a plant breeder because it has many of the characteristics that a plant breeder would wish for, a short cycle, the flowers are perfect, easy to pollinate and easy to work with,” Muñoz said.

The United States is the largest blueberry producer in the world, producing 690 million pounds of both wild and cultivated berries in 2016. Within the US, Florida is a major producer of blueberries, with an industry worth about $82 million. In 2020, growers produced about 20 million pounds of blueberries. 

Florida is the country’s main supplier of blueberries from April to May, giving farmers an early market advantage. In 2019, the state also ranked within the top eight producers of cultivated blueberries in the United States.

Meanwhile, Mexico only began planting blueberries in the early 2000s. While the industry has been built mostly over the last 10 years, growers produced 89 million pounds in 2018.

The Blueberry Breeding and Genomics Lab provides valuable research to help Florida blueberry growers increase their yield of berries per acre and become a significant competitor globally. This in turn will help local farmers measure up in demanding international markets.

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Muñoz said working with blueberries is always exciting.

“If we, for example, discover a blueberry with purple inside, we are the ones that make it happen and then put it in the market afterwards,” he said.

There are already 40 varieties of blueberries on the website, and researchers use genetics, genomics and even microbiology to find and optimize genetic traits and create a better generation of berries.

Juliana Cromie, a UF plant molecular and cellular biology Ph.D. candidate, started working in the lab as an undergraduate. She began by harvesting fruit but eventually became interested in improving pollination in blueberries.

“I am not biased when I say that we have the best lab. I think we have a really great principal investigator who is really invested in fostering students’ interests, their personal interests and professional goals,” she said.

Cromie appreciates how wide-ranging the research is.

“We have a really diverse lab,” she said. “In the sense that we have people from all over the world, as well as people working on all areas in our department, be it genomics, genomic selection and using modern day breeding techniques, all the way to people studying biochemistry and flavor.” 

Matthew Davis, who graduated from UF in December with a bachelor’s degree in biology with a specialization in biotechnology, began as a temporary hire in the fruit quality lab and later became a research assistant. 

“One thing that I really enjoyed is that there’s so much going on,” Davis said. “I got to learn a lot more about not just plant breeding, but about plant pathology, about molecular biology and way more about statistics than I knew before.”

Blueberries are not just little blue powerhouses of antioxidants. Muñoz said they are the perfect fruit because they are easy to enjoy.

“Imagine you open the pack. You wash the fruit, and then you start popping it in your mouth, throwing it in your mouth. There is no seeds left. There is no core, there is no peel, there is no stem, there is no pit,” he said. “You just wash them and eat them, and that’s it.”

Contact Eve Thompson at ethompson@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @evealanaa.


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