WSU scientists team up for $12.8 million effort to improve blueberries, cranberries

DeVetter, crouching and holding blueberry plants at a field of berry plants.
Lisa DeVetter, horticulturalist at Washington State University, co-leads a new nationally funded effort exploring genes, traits and tools to help breeders raise new and better blueberry and cranberry varieties.

Scientists at Washington State University have teamed up for a $12.8 million research effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to reveal genes and valuable traits for new and tastier blueberries and cranberries.

Part of the Vaccinium family of plants, which also includes lingonberries and huckleberries, blueberries and cranberries are considered superfoods, high in antioxidants, nutrients, and vitamins, and are important crops both nationally and internationally.

Blueberries and cranberries in market bins. A metal scoop in the blueberry bin.
High in antioxidants and vitamins, blueberries and cranberries are naturally good for us. The VacCap project seeks to identify traits for even better varieties.

Washington state is one of the nation’s top producers of blueberries, growing more than a million pounds per year. Washington ranks fifth for cranberries, growing more than 14 million pounds annually.

Blueberry and cranberry producers, however, haven’t yet benefited from advanced breeding technologies used in other crops, which limits their ability to grow new and better varieties.

That will change thanks to a new research effort, the Vaccinium Coordinated Agricultural Project, or VacCAP, funded by the USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative and led by Massimo Iorizzo, assistant professor at North Carolina State University.

VacCAP’s multi-state, trans-disciplinary team of scientists seeks to improve blueberry and cranberry varieties based on growers’ and consumers’ needs.  Advancing genetic discoveries that benefit both public and private breeding programs, researchers are targeting primary traits with an emphasis on better fruit.

Head shots of Gallardo and Main.
Karina Gallardo, left, and Dorrie Main, right, lead projects in VacCAP.

At WSU, Lisa DeVetter, assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture, R. Karina Gallardo, associate professor in the School of Economic Sciences, and Dorrie Main, professor in the Department of Horticulture, team up with researchers from six other US academic institutions, three USDA research centers, and three international research partners.

DeVetter will lead extension activities for blueberry breeders and industry partners, sharing information generated by the project and promoting the use of advanced DNA-based tools that help breed cultivars more efficiently.

Gallardo leads socio-economic research into the value of important consumer-oriented blueberry and cranberry traits.

“Consumer panels have shown that customers prize sweet, firm berries, but so far, no large-scale studies have estimated the commercial value of traits and preferences,” said Gallardo. “That is precisely what we’re going to measure through this research.”

Main will oversee data management for the project and further develop the  established scientific database for Vaccinium hosted at WSU. This work will provide breeding program management and analysis tools, and ensure the database is kept up to date with all publicly available genomic and genetic data.

To stay sustainable, the blueberry and cranberry industries need new approaches that increase fruit yields and boost quality to meet changing industry and consumer preferences.

With VacCAP, scientists are working together to achieve this goal, revealing the genetic factors and characteristics that influence fruit quality. The project will lead to new DNA tests to speed up selection of new varieties with better fruit traits, helping growers improve yields, efficiency, and value, and ultimately bring more and better berries for our shakes, snacks and desserts.

Learn more about the project on the VacCAP website.