By Bill Giduz
Imagine the frustration of studying blueberries for months, and never getting to eat any. That’s the situation Davidson student scientists found themselves in as part of a multi-institutional genomic research effort to produce better blueberries. The students worked to unlock the secrets of one of nature’s superfoods, interpreting codes, symbols, numbers and letters on computer screens.
In collaboration with instructors at Lenoir-Rhyne College, North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, the students were part of a project to annotate the blueberry genome in undergraduate classes. The work is supported by an $82,000 grant from the N.C. Biotechnology Center to Allan Brown of the NCSU Plants for Human Health Institute.
The United States is the world’s largest producer of blueberries, harvesting a total of 564.4 million pounds in 2012 worth $850 million. They are low in calories and high in nutritional value as a source of anti-oxidants, dietary fiber, minerals and vitamins, and have always been abundant in North America.
The project aims to identify specific genes in the blueberry’s genome of about two billion nucleotides that can be selected to produce plants with desired characteristics, such as larger berry size, more weather tolerance, more disease resistance and sweeter taste.
For most of human history, growers tried to produce better plants through time-consuming selective breeding, which requires growing blueberry bushes large enough to produce fruit. But genomic science now allows prediction of which strains of plants should express desired characteristics while the plant is just a tiny seedling. The genomic investigation can therefore save considerable time for breeders.
Under the direction of Davidson biology professor and Martin Genomics Program Director A. Malcolm Campbell, the students identified up to 100 or so genes, and investigated their contribution to desired traits. Students also identified genes from related plants, such as grape and strawberry, and used computers to locate similar genes in the blueberry genome. Once they identified the blueberry genes, they collected short DNA segments that breeders can use to determine which version of the genes are in the different plants they breed.
The Davidson students’ work will facilitate the next phase of the project, which will begin in the fall. The students’ findings were reported to collaborators at NCSU, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Maryland and Washington State University, and will be included in a scientific paper about the project.
Campbell and Scott Schaefer, assistant professor of biology at Lenoir-Rhyne, also will use their students’ experiences to develop resources, tools, tutorials and Web interfaces to develop plant genomic courses to be offered at other colleges and universities.
The outcome of the students’ research has benefits beyond production of a better food and commercial product—it also prepares the student scientists for careers in biotechnology. They learned how to search a genome, identify genes of interest, compare gene sequences from different species, identify repetitive DNA segments within the plant genome, and evaluate and critique software to improve its usability for other researchers and students.
“This collaboration is helping students, farmers and the state of North Carolina–what’s not to love about this way of teaching?!”
“Davidson students are helping blueberry breeders around the world understand how their crop functions. They are generating genetic markers that breeders can use to improve the quality of blueberries for traits that are important for nutrition and marketability,” Campbell said. “This collaboration is helping students, farmers and the state of North Carolina—what’s not to love about this way of teaching?!”