As Wimbledon reaches its peak this weekend, British scientists are preparing to battle to ensure the tournament classic of strawberries and cream stays on the menu for years to come with a £2M project to research strawberry disease.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) will fund nearly £800,000 of the five-year project into protecting strawberries from diseases.
The two grant awards from BBSRC, to East Malling Research and the The Sainsbury Laboratory, come under the Improving Disease Resistance In Strawberry (IDRIS) programme, run by East Malling Research.
East Malling Research and The Sainsbury Laboratory will additionally contribute £200,000 and this figure will be matched by an industry consortium including Berry Gardens Ltd, CPM (Retail) Ltd, The Horticultural Development Company, Mack Multiples and Meiosis Ltd, to bring the total project fund to £1,992,000.
Researchers at both institutions will build on previous work to seek genetic 'markers' within the DNA of strawberry that denote genes associated with resistance to soil-borne strawberry diseases.
Using existing knowledge about the genes that strawberry diseases employ to infect plants, they will determine markers for the 'best' resistance genes in strawberry, in a process called 'effector informed breeding'.
The resulting 'map' of where these markers are in the strawberry genome will allow breeding programmes to more effectively select for resistance to diseases such as crown rot and red core, caused by Phytophthora cactorum and Phytophthora fragariae respectively, increasing the resilience of strawberries grown in the UK.
The hope is that this research will help breed strawberry plants with a stronger resistance to soil-borne disease. Such strawberries would not have to be replanted every eight-to-15 months as at present, reducing the carbon footprint of production, potentially reducing the amount of fungicide used to grow the crop and lowering the total cost of growing strawberries.
As part of the work scientists will also create a draft genome sequence for the cultivated strawberry. This new genome will be a valuable tool for identifying molecular pathways and processes controlling disease resistance and other traits.
Dr Richard Harrison, the geneticist leading the project at East Malling Research, said: "Strawberries are a remarkable success story for UK horticulture and are one of the few fruit crops where the UK is nearly self-sufficient during the domestic season, from May to October. However, diseases caused by Phytophthora species are a constant threat to growers.
"Taking some of the knowledge gained during studies of the related potato late blight pathogen Phytophthora infestans and transferring it to strawberry pathogens will allow rapid progress to be made in developing resistant varieties for sustainable production."
The approach will build on work pioneered by The Sainsbury Laboratory on using disease genomes to guide new approaches to crop breeding. The Sainsbury Laboratory will provide expertise in pathogen genome analyses to the project.
Berry sales in the UK rose from £146M in 2000 to £783M in 2012, with strawberries representing 60% of the sector.
Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "The UK strawberry industry faces some serious challenges. Variable and unpredictable weather conditions are causing problems for growers, and the withdrawal of many fungicides and soil fumigants have led to increased crop losses from soil-borne diseases such as crown rot and red core.
"This research will tackle some of these problems using world-class bioscience to build on previous important work."