Giving thanks: Rutgers works to build a better cranberry

Giving thanks: Rutgers works to build a better cranberry
New Jersey growers cultivate about 3,500 acres of cranberries, making New Jersey the third-largest cranberry-producing state in the nation. Here, workers flood a cranberry bog, which makes the fruit easier to harvest.

( -- Building better cranberries is Nicholi Vorsa’s business, a process that can’t be rushed. 

Vorsa, director of the Phillip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Research, part of Rutgers’ New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, has developed  three new cranberry varieties during his career. One took 11 years; the other two took 19 years. 

Now Vorsa is working on a fourth variety. And this Thanksgiving, he can be thankful for the genomic tools at Rutgers that could speed up the work involved in building healthier, hardier, and tastier cranberries.

He’s awaiting the arrival of 20,000 cranberry genes from the Genome Cooperative in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences that yield information about the fruit’s genetic characteristics.

 The genes, which Vorsa refers to as “nice, big chunks of cranberry genome,” are the result of a comprehensive process that builds “gene models” for cranberries using bioinformatics, the application of computer science and information technology to biology.

Until now, the cranberry genome has been a blank slate. Cranberry  breeders like Vorsa have faced a sort of genetic Wheel of Fortune, in which they try to deduce a message from very limited information. 

“Developing a new variety of cranberry takes years of experiments, crossing existing varieties,” said Vorsa, whose lab is a complex of cranberry bogs at the Marucci Center in Chatsworth, Burlington County, New Jersey. “We have to search for the traits we want without knowing which genes have which functions. You cross two cultivars (varieties) and get, say, 150 seeds,” Vorsa said. “Then you grow a plant from each seed in plots 25 feet square.” Researchers then evaluate the resulting plants for yield, color, acidity, fruit rot, berry size and shape compared to the current varieties. 

This week the Genome Cooperative will give Vorsa a set of 20,000 annotated genes – genes for which location and function have been determined.  The cooperative, led by Debashish Bhattacharya, professor of ecology, evolution and natural resources, is a group of collaborating faculty and their lab members who share resources to enable rapid growth in genomics and genomic tools at Rutgers. 

Vorsa and his colleagues will then know the function of those genes, and which chromosomes they reside on.

Using powerful computers and specialized software, Rutgers bio-informatics specialist Ehud Zelzion matches cranberry genes  with unknown functions against a database of with known functions in other species. 

“If a cranberry gene turns up in another species performing a certain function, there’s a pretty good chance that it has a similar function in a cranberry,” Zelzion said.

New Jersey growers still cultivate about 3,500 acres of the fruit, producing about 550,000 barrels a year. Southern New Jersey’s soil, which is sandy on top, mucky below and highly acidic, are especially good for growing cranberries. Rutgers patented cranberry varieties are available o commercial cranberry growers in the U.S. and Canada, under license from Rutgers University.

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