Genetic Hybridization of Apples
In the article, “Meet ‘Cosmic Crisp,’ a New Hybrid Apple That Stays Fresh for a Year.” by Brigit Katz (December 4, 2019), she describes the emergence of a new hybrid apple that is set to take over the market due to its sweetness, sharpness, and shelf life. Apple growers have been perfecting their craft over centuries to search for the perfect apple. Old techniques have given way to new technologies, but the consumer has yet to be converted. These new technologies are related to gene marking and gene editing, a currently taboo food idea in the modern world. While many apple breeders are using traditional hybridization to cultivate their trees, the future of apple production may increasingly happen with gene modification (GM).
History of Apples
Apples have been cultivated since the 1870s in Japan and since the 1930s in Russia. The USA has been cultivating even longer. The USA had provided around 300 different cultivars to Japan by the 1900s, of which, the cultivars ‘Jonathan’ and ‘Ralls Janet’ had a lion share of the apple market in Japan after World War II. These varieties eventually gave way to the ‘Delicious’ and ‘Golden Delicious’ as well as locally developed strains like the ‘Fuji’ apple today. (Igarashi et al, 2016, Sedov et al, 2011)
Careful breeding of apple trees has led to a diverse group of fruit that all have amazing properties. For example, the ‘Fuji’ apple is one of the most widely grown apples in the world because of its sweetness, crispiness, and can be stored one month after harvest. (Igarashi et al, 2016). Other apples like the ‘Cosmic Crisp’ are a balance of sweet and tart, with a reported shelf life of up to one year. ‘Cosmic Crisp’ was painstakingly created over 20 years without using GM. There are over 12 million of ‘Cosmic’ trees planted, and they are set to produce 80 million pounds worth of apples in 2020. (Katz, 2019)
There are largely two ways to cultivate all these new apples. One method is traditional cross-breeding of two different strains of apple. The other method is more recent and involves selecting specific genes to carry over into the off-spring.
Traditional cross-breeding continues to be an ancient solution to modern problems. By mating pairs of dissimilar apple trees together, botanists can achieve many desirable qualities in the resultant offspring. Russian scientists at the All-Russian Fruit Crops Breeding Research Institute still use this method in their apple trees. They have been working since 1970 and have pollinated over 4,473,000 flowers to achieve apples with high-vitamin counts and immunity to scab. They have also used natural hybridization to change the seasonal ripening and fruit sizes. (Sedov et al, 2011)
Genetic modification provides a different solution for the future. Scientists take gene markers for disease resistance, color, ripening age, etc., and select the markers they want. Researchers around the world are making great progress into GM apples. In Japan, GM is paving the way for anti-fungal apples that are resistant to scab, powdery mildew, and fire blight. (Igarashi et al, 2016). In the USA, scientists have created the ‘Arctic apple’ which has been modified to resist browning after it is cut by finding the gene that creates the enzyme that causes plant browning. (Maxmen, 2017)
Both methods have their benefits and drawbacks. Traditional hybridization is familiar to consumers and can benefit in a market climate that values ‘natural’ products. However, cross-breeding can take a very long time to see the results, and those results are not as precise as genetic modification.
With genetic modification, the process can happen very quickly, and the technology is improving just as fast. However, there is a lot of controversy surrounding GM organisms (GMO). Almost all countries are writing legislation for GMOs, which can make introducing GMOs to market, like the ‘Arctic apple,’ very expensive. (It is expensive because the companies must prove they are healthy. (Igarashi et al, 2016)
According to Okanagan, the company behind the ‘Arctic apple,’ their consumer surveys revealed that about 20% of consumers were ‘wary of GMOs.’ A lot of the issues surrounding consumer sentiment can be solved by education, and by educating the public on the safety of ‘Arctic’ many people changed their minds. One issue with ‘Arctic’ has been their representation of the science behind the apple. Nowhere on their apple bags does it state ‘GMO.’ Consumers must scan a QR code on the bag to reach that information, which appears deceptive. (Maxmen, 2017)
Apples of the Future
The science behind apple breeding is both ancient and modern. There are many competing groups who are trying to capture the market with their innovative apples. Many apple breeders continue using traditional hybridization to cultivate their trees, such as the ‘Cosmic Crisp’ team. They are using natural methods to create an apple that can remain in storage for up to one year and maintain its deliciousness. Other scientists, like the ‘Arctic apple’ team are using genetic modification to make their apples nutritious and delicious. While traditional hybridization techniques remain popular, gene editing is becoming an increasingly viable, if sometimes controversial, alternative to apple breeding and may soon become the dominant method.
Igarashi, M., Hatsuyama, Y., Harada, T., Fukasawa-Akada, T., & Igarashi, M. (2016). Biotechnology and apple breeding in Japan. Breeding Science, 66(1), 18–33. https://doi.org/10.1270/jsbbs.66.18
Katz, Brigit. (December 4, 2019). “Meet ‘Cosmic Crisp,’ a New Hybrid Apple That Stays Fresh for a Year.” Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/meet-cosmic-crisp-new-hybrid-apple-stays-fresh-year-180973691/
Maxmen, A. (2017). Engineered apple tests US consumers’ appetite. Nature, 149–150. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1963072874/
Sedov, E., Sedysheva, G., Makarkina, M., Ul’yanovskaya, E., & Serova, Z. (2011). Promising directions in apple breeding. Russian Agricultural Sciences, 37(4), 286–289. https://doi.org/10.3103/S1068367411040197