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NC State team lands $12.8 million to improve fruit quality

KANNAPOLIS – With the long-term goal of improving the blueberry and cranberry crops based on producer and consumer interests, N.C. State university scientists Massimo Iorizzo, Mary Ann Lila and Penelope Perkins-Veazie were awarded a four-year, $6.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The grant was awarded along with dollar-for-dollar matching funds.

The $12.8 million project, “VacciniumCAP: Leveraging Genetic and Genomic Resources to Enable Development of Blueberry and Cranberry Cultivars With Improved Fruit Quality Fttributes.” will be led by Iorizzo at the Plants for Human Health Institute, located at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.

The “VacCAP” project will study blueberry and cranberry plants, which are both botanically part of the Vaccinium species.

“One thing that sets this project apart is the fact that it is highly industry-driven,” said a news release from the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute. “While breeders and industry representatives understand that use of DNA markers represent an effective strategy to develop improved cultivars, DNA-based information is still not used in blueberry and cranberry breeding programs.”

Iorizzo said that in 2015, when he joined the institute, it was clear to him and many others that there was a need to secure money to develop a coordinated, multistate, interdisciplinary project that could advance genetic discoveries with potential application in breeding programs and that would target traits that are critical to stakeholders, including growers, processors and consumers.

Iorizzo coordinated a preliminary research project with funding from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2016 and 2017 by distributing a survey to blueberry and cranberry stakeholders to identify industry priorities.

Improving fruit quality, specifically firmness, flavor, shelf life and appearance, will be targeted during the VacCAP project.

According to the news release, the U.S. Vaccinium industry’s domestic wholesale value exceeds $2 billion a year.

“U.S. Vaccinium stakeholders are global leaders in cultivar development, production, processing and distribution of blueberries, cranberries and value-added products. Though production and consumption is growing worldwide, the growth of U.S. production has slowed in the past five years,” according to the news release.

The project is part of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which funds multiyear, multi-institutional projects.

In addition to the three N.C. State Plants for Human Health Institute scientists, the project involves researchers from seven U.S. academic institutions, three U.S. Department of Agriculture research centers and three international research partners.

According to the news release, VacCAP follows earlier genomic, genetic and breeding programs focused on species in the Rosaceae family (ROSBreed), including apple, peach, cherry and strawberry crops; SolCAP (Solanaceae crops); and CucCAP (Cucurbitaceae crops).

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