Blueberry genomics

BlueberryClusterHighbush blueberry is a high-value, specialty crop.  Once established, an acre of blueberry bushes can produce around 7,000 pounds of berries at a profit of around $3,500, according to a University of Georgia Agricultural Extension bulletin.

Thanks to high profit potential and increasing consumer demand, blueberry acreage has been steadily increasing in the United States since the early 1900s, when USDA botanist Frederick Coville and New Jersey agriculturalist Elizabeth White developed the first commercial berry varieties from wild plants.

Blueberries are popular because of their flavor, but also because of their reputation as a “superfood,” meaning: they provide health benefits above and beyond basic nutrition. Blueberries contain fiber, sugars, and vitamin C, but they are also a rich source of antioxidants, including polyphenolic flavonoid compounds, especially anthocyanins. Thus far, most research into blueberry’s health benefits has focused on characterizing their anthocyanin content and the effects of various anthocyanin species on mammalian systems. However, anthocyanins are not readily absorbed in the mammalian digestive tract, suggesting other phytochemicals in blueberries could play a role.

Breeding new blueberry varieties requires many years investment. Breeders typically make crosses between different varieties, hoping that the progeny will have desirable traits, like superior flavor and ability to resist diseases. After the progeny of a cross are planted, it can take around four years for the plants to mature and produce fruit that breeders can evaluate. If breeders could identify the best plants at the seedling stage, much time, money, and effort could be saved.

Toward this end, we collaborated with a team at NC State University to sequence and annotate the genome of a diploid highbush blueberry Vaccinium corymbosum, one of two major species important in blueberry agriculture. Using the genome sequence and knowledge about the location and function of genes, we can design DNA tests that will help breeders identify the best candidates.

The blueberry gene annotations are now publicly available, along with data analysis code that shows how we annotated genes with functions and identified genes that are most active in ripe berries.

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