This post was originally published on GMO Answers' Medium Page.

GMO Answers spoke with Ksenija Gasic, a team leader within the RosBREED project at Clemson University, one of the 14 universities conducting this research, about her significant work and what it means for farmers and consumers.

With the technology coming out of RosBREED, farmers will have more options to protect their crops from diseases and consumers will benefit from higher-quality produce. (Image Credit: Ksenija Gasic)

1. What is RosBREED?

RosBREED is a project dedicated to the genetic improvement of U.S. rosaceous crops (including apples, blackberries, peaches, pears, roses, strawberries, sweet and tart cherries) by targeted applications of genomics knowledge and tools to accelerate and increase the efficiency of breeding programs. This Coordinated Agricultural Project is funded through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative by a combination of federal and matching funds.

2. What is the purpose of the RosBREED project?

The purpose of RosBREED is to develop and apply modern DNA tests and related breeding methods to deliver new varieties — that have both superior horticultural quality and improved disease resistance. RosBREED brings unprecedented attention to local and regional breeding programs and a commitment to more efficiently, accurately, and creatively develop commercial varieties. RosBREED builds on the foundation established in a preceding RosBREED project, adding many new scientists and targeting diseases that industry stakeholders across the country have identified as key challenges. Farmers will have more options to sustainably protect their crops from disease, while consumers and the entire supply chain will directly benefit from products with better taste, nutrition, storage capability and appearance.

3. How did you get involved and what is your role?

I am a peach breeder at Clemson University and one of the demonstration breeders within the project. I was a demonstration breeder in the preceding RosBREED project, and in this second round of five-year funding, I serve as a Stone Fruit Breeding Team Leader. My role is to help develop and apply new molecular tools in my breeding program and facilitate their application in other stone fruit (peaches, sweet and tart cherries) breeding programs in the country. As a Stone Fruit Breeding Team Leader, I coordinate activities among fellow stone fruit breeders that participate in the project.

4. What are the benefits of RosBREED?

Domestic and international markets for products of rosaceous crops demand ever-improving horticultural product quality. To satisfy this demand and at the same time manage pre- and postharvest disease threats, U.S. rosaceous industry stakeholders have given high priority to the development of new, high quality, disease-resistant plant varieties. Rosaceous crop breeders have dedicated decades of effort breeding for superior fruit quality and disease resistance and have produced just some disease-resistant varieties. But consider this remarkable fact: although progress has been made in both fruit quality and disease resistance, no apple, peach, pear, sweet cherry, or tart cherry variety that is resistant to major diseases currently occupies any substantial U.S. market share! What remains elusive is the perfect apple, cherry, peach, or strawberry, which consistently exceeds consumer expectations with satisfying appearance, aroma, flavor, shelf life, and texture AND also meets industry needs for durable disease resistance. Yet, such rosaceous varieties are possible. The components exist — but they must be combined. RosBREED is a coordinated national effort that will enables U.S. rosaceous crop breeders to routinely apply genomic tools to more efficiently deliver varieties with producer-required disease resistance and market-essential horticultural product quality.

5. Does RosBREED involve genetic modification?

RosBREED is developing molecular tools and techniques to enable a faster and more accurate selection of individual plants that have a desirable combination of traits. We’re trying to identify the sources of desirable traits in wild relatives and incorporate those beneficial traits in newly developed varieties by combining traditional breeding techniques with DNA tools. Although the program does not involve genetic modification, my personal opinion is that the GMO approach would be needed in cases where the industry sustainability is threatened by a disease or pathogen, such as citrus greening, and sources of resistance exist in distant plant relatives or unrelated organisms. In such cases, genetic modification might be the only choice to create variability in existing plants to secure sustainability.

6. What is the most exciting part of the RosBREED project?

The next generation of rosaceous crop varieties, combining superior horticultural quality AND disease resistance, will enhance the economic viability of rosaceous crop-producing rural communities and reduce the environmental costs and human health risks associated with pesticide load in the agro-ecosystem. Consumers will have greater access to a stable and affordable supply of healthful fruit and attractive floral products, with increased per capita consumption and increased well-being.