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Grant goes toward study of blueberry rot, ripeness

MSU will lead researchers in advancing blueberry production.

December 14, 2023

4 Min Read
A close up of blueberries on a branch
BLUEBERRY RESEARCH: Timothy Miles, an assistant professor in MSU's Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, is teaming up with researchers across the U.S. to further study management of anthracnose and Botrytis fruit rot in blueberries. Jennifer Kiel

by Jack Falinski

Timothy Miles is leading a multi-institutional team of researchers to find ways to improve the quality of blueberries while limiting their loss before, during and after harvest.

Miles, an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, has been awarded a four-year, $3.95 million grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is part of the USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

Michigan is a top producer of blueberries in the U.S., with more than 20,000 acres in production, according to the Michigan Ag Council. The industry also contributes about $132 million to the state’s economy.

Two of the most common fruit rot diseases that alter the quality and yield of blueberry crops in the U.S. are anthracnose fruit rot and Botrytis fruit rot. AFR, also known as “ripe rot,” shows itself by wilting blueberries and producing spore masses that appear as orange speckles. BFR typically occurs in cooler temperatures and presents as gray mold on blueberries and other crops.

While much is already known about the diseases through previously conducted studies, Miles says advances in technology and joint action among scientists from across the country will propel current knowledge forward and address stakeholder needs.

“What makes this research unique is that it’s a coordinated effort [from multiple institutions] to study fruit rot across the U.S., and in blueberries that hasn’t happened before on this large of a scale,” Miles says.

Objectives of the project include:

  • learning how management techniques affect the onset of fruit rot

  • applying molecular tools to accelerate the time it takes to detect fungicide resistance in pathogens

  • generating cultivar-specific fruit quality models to predict fruit vulnerability to rots and using optical-imaging technology to filter and sort blueberries vulnerable to fruit rot

  • providing efficient ways growers and field specialists can access information drawn from the conducted research

To make findings and recommendations easily and widely available, a website is being designed to allow for materials to be uploaded for educational and outreach purposes.

“Anything we find using this grant — grower information, important publications and other resources related to fruit rot — will be in here,” Miles says. “We may also build this into more than just information about fruit rot because it’s supposed to be a portal growers can use to gain knowledge on how to manage blueberry diseases.”

Pinpointing ripeness

Along with studying pathogens and ways to manage them, scientists will create more refined models for pinpointing the ripeness in blueberries to prevent fruit rot from occurring in harvested berries. New imaging technology will also be tested to non-invasively screen blueberries for disease as they’re sorted.

According to Josh Vander Weide, an assistant professor in MSU's Department of Horticulture, examining horticultural strategies to control fruit rot could lessen fungicide use, which is critical because fruit rot pathogens can become resistant to fungicides over time.

“Fruit rots tend to develop near harvest, so there are some practices we can employ to minimize disease pressure,” Vander Weide says. “This not only involves better defining which cultivars are more resistant [to these pathogens], but also what kind of harvest scenarios prolong disease development.”

Rows of blueberries in a field

Vander Weide said the team will be observing how pathogens develop in relation to the weather conditions blueberries are grown in and the maturity at which they’re picked. He also noted that collaborating with researchers from across the country grants opportunities to track an array of environments blueberries are farmed in.

“A greater percentage of fruit rot development occurs in the cartons you’re buying from the grocery store than on the plant,” Vander Weide says. “That’s why sometimes when we buy blueberries from the store, they’re moldy within a few days. The likelihood that this occurs depends on the cultivar, as well as when they’re harvested and how far they’re shipped.”

After harvest, Vander Weide says they’ll use cutting-edge technology to sort blueberries, separating ones that’ve been infected or are more likely to become infected with fruit rot based off certain qualities of the fruit, like firmness.

Falinski serves as a communications manager with MSU AgBioResearch.

Source: MSU

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