New Jersey growers cultivate about 3,500 acres of cranberries, making New Jersey the third-largest cranberry-producing state in the nation. Here, workers flood a cranberry bog, which makes the fruit easier to harvest. Image: Rutgers University
Building better cranberries is Nicholi Vorsa’s business, a process that
can’t be rushed.
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 can be
thankful for the genomic tools at Rutgers that
could speed up the work involved in building healthier, hardier, and tastier
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
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.
This week (Nov. 21, 2011) 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.
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.
The three varieties developed by Vorsa—Crimson Queen, Mullica
Queen, and Demoranville—are grown in the United States
and Canada, and rival the most popular variety, Stevens.