Australian researchers are trying to understand the genes that determine strawberry characteristics to assist varietal development

A new joint Australian research project will identify the genetics behind the strawberry qualities such as flavour and colour to aid the development of new varieties.

The five-year project led by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) with the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and Griffith University and funded by Hort Innovation Australia will build an advanced knowledge base of the genetics behind the characteristics consumers prefer.

Heather Smyth, a sensory science and flavour chemist from QAAFI’s Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences, said the findings could result in a range of new, elite strawberry varieties to target premium markets and help create a varietal diversity similar to apples.

“There are many different apple varieties which offer subtly different tastes, textures and end-uses – Granny Smith, Red Delicious for example,” Smyth said.

“We potentially could have the same for strawberries – different varieties with different sensory properties and therefore different applications and markets.

“For example, home consumers might prefer small, sweet strawberries, while chefs might prefer the visual appeal of larger fruit for particular culinary uses and may not be too concerned about sweetness because they can add it themselves.”

DAF Principal Plant Breeder Jodi Neal said the research would draw on an extensive collection of parental lines developed through DAF’s Australian Strawberry Breeding Program at the Maroochy Research Station in Nambour.

“The consumer and sensory testing will involve evaluating niche lines of white, pink and dark burgundy strawberries,” Neal said.

“We’ll be exploring texture, taste and aroma volatiles and consumer acceptance. What does the mouth feel when you bite into it, for example? 

“We hope this phase will help us link the flavour to the genetics to develop genetic markers to predict flavour in future varieties.”

Australian researchers will attempt to identify the genes that influence strawberry characteristics such as colour

Australian researchers will attempt to identify the genes that influence strawberry characteristics such as colour

Image: Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries

Smyth said once sensory profiles are established for existing and new characteristics, new varieties can eventually be made available to growers and consumers.

“What the consumer wants does vary. There are different market segments with different expectations for taste, colour, size, post-harvest handling and other characteristics,” said Smyth.

“The question we are starting with is ‘what are the genetics behind all of these?’”

A multi-disciplinary team including nine PhD students has been assembled to develop molecular tools and other types of rapid analytical techniques to identify genetic traits across a range of breeding programs.

Smyth said it was the perfect opportunity for researchers from different organisations to collaborate.

“We’ve got Griffith University, the University of Queensland, DAF, all custodians of the breeding programs and genetic variation for a whole range of fruits – strawberries, mangoes, pineapples, passionfruit and papaya,”

“We are going to really advance where we are with each of these crops and give plant breeders the tools they need to deliver varieties that will allow producers to give consumers what they love about these fruits.”