More Than Meets the Nose

December 18, 2018

When it comes to food, smell is almost as important as taste. It’s common to take a moment to smell a glass of wine, and there are whole sections of Target devoted to the scent of apples. It may come as no surprise that aroma is one of the factors considered when developing a new fruit variety—but did you know that aroma might also be related to other fruit qualities like texture? Until recently, it has been difficult for breeders to understand the complexities of how the molecular and genetic structure of a plant affect characteristics such as aroma, flavor, texture, and color. As the first Honeycrisp Chair for Fruit Crop Innovation, Professor Adrian Hegeman is leading a research team using a robust chemical and statistical analysis approach called metabolomics to understand the underlying mechanisms behind fruit quality.

With endowed chair support, Hegeman’s team hopes to complement fruit breeding programs in the department by pursuing research questions that might traditionally be considered out of Hegemanscope for breeding programs but could lead to breakthroughs in the breeding process. Traditionally, plant breeding involves crossing two plants with desirable traits and selecting offspring with the best combination of attributes inherited from the parents. For perennial crops like apples and grapes, it can be years before the selected offspring mature enough for fruit quality to be assessed - that’s why cultivar development can take decades.

Imagine if you could use something simple—like the fragrance of an apple blossom—to detect the potential of a plant to develop fruit that is sweet, crisp, and resistant to breakdown in storage. Used alongside genetic mapping, metabolomics could allow breeders to make better-informed crosses earlier in the process, diminishing the time and resources it takes to bring new cultivars into production.

While we’re a bit far from that level of detail, the vision is clear and Hegeman’s team is well on their way to understanding the chemical linkages that may provide clues to the future of breeding.