Working Towards a More Complex Cucumber
Peabody March 2, 2007
The cucumber, it seems, is in a bit of a pickle. While this favorite
salad accessory may be decidedly crisp and refreshing to the palate, it's a
little boringfrom a genetic standpoint.
That's according to Jack
Staub, a plant geneticist with the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS)
Crops Research Unit in Madison, Wis. One of only two non-private cucumber
breeders in the country, Staub is trying to invigorate the humble cucumber,
which suffers from an overly narrow genetic base.
That means if a vine-strangling virus strikes, or a far-reaching
drought settles in, the country's entire cucumber crop could be in jeopardy.
That's not good news for the average pickle-loving American who ate about 12
pounds of processed cucumbers last year. Compare that to the modest four pounds
of small fruits each of us consumed.
Staub's strategy is to give cucumber's dismal DNA a boost by infusing
it with more wild character. He and a cooperating Chinese scientist have
already made solid headway, having successfully crossed an unusual wild
cucumber species from China with a domestic one.
What's so attractive about this wild cucumber is that it possesses
resistance to gummy stem blight and, possibly, to nematodes and certain
viruses--some of cucumber's biggest foes.
Fortunately, the hybrids that Staub and his colleagues are developing
cross readily with domestic cucumbers. He's still evaluating them for their
horticultural potential but plans to eventually share the new and unique plant
material with breeders all over the world.
Wild cucumbers are not Staub's only source of genetic inspiration.
He's currently trying to unlock beneficial genes lurking inside wild melons. As
a cousin to the cucumber, wild exotic melon types could become a source of
valuable drought resistance and other traits.
What's frustrating the researcher, though, is that while cucumbers and
some wild melon relatives are reproductively compatible, they just won't cross
with domestic melon. Staub is committed to trying to solve this mystery--and to
teasing out more valuable genes for cucumbers in the process.
more about the research in the March 2007 issue of Agricultural Research
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.