There’s nothing better than a perfect, ripe strawberry, bursting with sweetness and flavor. Sales figures of the fruit affirm our love for strawberries: the lush, red berries are the fifth most popular fruit in the U.S. The sad thing is, we’re often disappointed with the flavor of supermarket berries, which “are bred for size, color, shelf-life, and disease-resistance.” But now, university researchers are on a quest to make strawberries once again taste great…and they’re combining classic plant breeding techniques with “modern” genetics. Nick Stockton (@StocktonSays) writes a fascinating piece on the topic for Wired.
Stockton writes that “virtually every strawberry you’ve ever eaten is a crossbreed of two species: Fragaria chiloensis, a big-fruited variety that ranges up the western side of the Americas; and F. virginiana a smaller wild berry that grows from Florida to Alaska.” The cross breed is called Fragaria x ananassa.
Flavor – the focus of this piece – is a more complex trait than size, or color, or even disease resistance.
“When you talk about something like flavor, there are so many components: the texture, the sugar content, the types of sugars, the aromatics,” says Steve Knapp, the new director of UC Davis’s six-decade-old Strawberry Breeding Program. And those sugars (fructose, glucose, sucrose), acids (citric and malic), and fragrant compounds (forget it, strawberries have over 100) come from a sprawling array of genes that interact, modify, and depend on each other to create strawberry-ness.
But genetic engineering has its limits.
For instance, strawberries don’t ripen off the vine, but in order to ship a lot of times they have to be picked when they are still firm. “One of the things we have to do is make strawberries that can be picked a little more ripe and still have a shelf life,” says Whitaker. Which means no amount of genetic engineering will ever make a strawberry that tastes better than one picked at peak ripeness and eaten in the sunshine.
A great read.