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Rutgers works to build a better cranberry

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Vorsa, director of the Phillip E. Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research, part of Rutgers' New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, has developed three new cranberry varieties during his career. One took 11 years; the other two took 19 years.

Now Vorsa is working on a fourth variety. And this Thanksgiving, he was thankful for the genomic tools at Rutgers that could speed up the work involved in building healthier, hardier, and tastier cranberries.

He's awaiting the arrival of 20,000 cranberry genes from the Genome Cooperative in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences that yield information about the fruit's genetic characteristics.

The genes, which Vorsa refers to as "nice, big chunks of cranberry genome," are the result of a comprehensive process that builds "gene models" for cranberries using bioinformatics, the application of computer science and information technology to biology.

Until now, the cranberry genome has been a blank slate. Cranberry breeders like Vorsa have faced a sort of genetic Wheel of Fortune, in which they try to deduce a message from very limited information.

"Developing a new variety of cranberry takes years of experiments, crossing existing varieties," says Vorsa, whose laboratory is a complex of cranberry bogs at the Marucci Center in Chatsworth, Burlington County, New Jersey. "We have to search for the traits we want without knowing which genes have which functions. You cross two cultivars (varieties) and get, say, 150 seeds," Vorsa says. "Then you grow a plant from each seed in plots 25 feet square." Researchers then evaluate the resulting plants for yield, color, acidity, fruit rot, berry size and berry shape compared to the current varieties.

The Genome Cooperative will give Vorsa a set of 20,000 annotated genes—genes for which location and function have been determined. The cooperative, led by Debashish Bhattacharya, professor of ecology, evolution, and natural resources, is a group of collaborating faculty and their laboratory members who share resources to enable rapid growth in genomics and genomic tools at Rutgers.

Vorsa and his colleagues will then know the function of those genes, and which chromosomes they reside on.

Using powerful computers and specialized software, Rutgers bioinformatics specialist Ehud Zelzion matches cranberry genes with unknown functions against a database of genes with known functions in other species.

"If a cranberry gene turns up in another species performing a certain function, there's a pretty good chance that it has a similar function in a cranberry," Zelzion says.

New Jersey growers still cultivate about 3,500 acres of the fruit, producing about 550,000 barrels a year. Southern New Jersey's soil, which is sandy on top, mucky below, and highly acidic, are especially good for growing cranberries. Rutgers patented cranberry varieties are available to commercial cranberry growers in the U.S. and Canada, under license from Rutgers University.