GENET archive


PLANTS: Professor hunts for perfect strawberry

                                  PART 1

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AUTHOR: The Associated Press, by Stephen Manning


DATE:   08.07.2007

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”Swartz realizes he may be stretching too much to create this ideal berry, laughing nervously when he admits there may be big issues like consumer resistance to genetically engineered food. And while the scientist in him relishes the challenge of overcoming agricultural roadblocks, the businessman would be equally satisfied with a strawberry people will buy. ‘The perfect strawberry is the one that makes you money,‘ he said.”



What makes the perfect strawberry? Is it the crimson skin, studded with small flecks of seeds, enveloping the juicy red and white core? Or is it the flavor, the balance between the sweet and sour, that make it a favorite for dunking in chocolate or soaking in pools of cream?

For the answer, try asking a man who has spent much of his professional life hunting for that ideal fruit, sacrificing large sums of his own money and a bit of his own body, pickling his guts in marathon tastings to narrow down what he wants in a berry.

”You taste the sweetness right up front, then you get a good whiff of the aroma. Then it will move back through your nose,” said Harry Swartz, standing among strawberry plants outside a research greenhouse at the University of Maryland, his fingers stained red from squeezing berries. ”You get a firmness, then a melting texture underneath. That is what I am looking for.”

Along with a fellow Maryland professor, Swartz is trying to build a better berry - a fruit tailored for gourmet markets and different tastes worldwide that also can be grown and harvested more cheaply and efficiently than current methods.

Swartz, also a private fruit breeder, hasn’t found that fruit yet. But he thinks he’s getting closer. He is now working with a potentially revolutionary strawberry plant from Spain that could be easier and more affordable to produce and harvest. If this plant proves successful, Swartz says it could save farmers thousands of dollars per acre.

And there is a lot of money to be made. The strawberry industry churned out $1.5 billion worth of berries domestically last year, primarily from fields in Florida and California that keep strawberries in stores all year. Worldwide, China now rivals the United States as the largest producer of the fruit.

Strawberries now rank with bananas and apples among the most popular fruits, with each American eating an average of 4 pounds of the berries each year. They rival oranges for vitamin C and contain antioxidants that may help ward off cancer. That, along with greater availability of berries year round from big producers, has led to a strawberry explosion.

”The market has been expanding every year for the last 10 years,” said Kevin Schooley, executive director of the North American Strawberry Growers Association.

But the delicate small fruits, which grow in clutches on vines that hang below thick green leaves, are fickle when it comes to harvesting. Berries on the same stem often ripen at different rates, meaning a field must be picked several times. That type of labor can add significantly to the cost of production.

The strawberries sold in those plastic clamshells are also missing a key ingredient according to Swartz - taste. Underripe and crunchy, the acid can overwhelm the sweet. Others are loaded with sugar, overwhelming the subtle floral flavors.

Swartz said it was frustration with these ”cardboard” berries that made him think there must be a better way to breed a strawberry.

His first focus is on flavor. Swartz is trying to infuse different tastes into berries, tailored for different global markets. He is now concentrating on the moschata, or musk, berry that was once widely cultivated in Europe. He eventually plans to breed cinnamon flavors for South American palates, floral flavors for the French and chocolate for Americans.

”What I want people to feel when they eat these things is a mint julep, a nice cool summer, a quenching flavor.”

He has the network in place to breed the fruit, including a company called Five Aces Breeding and the Maryland Industrial Partnership Program, a university program that helps fund private sector work. But he needed the perfect plant.

Swartz thinks he may have found it in a field in Huelva, Spain. He dubbed it ”monophylla” because it is characterized by single-bladed leaves, in contrast to the triple-bladed leaf fan of a normal strawberry plant.

Instead of hanging low in clusters close to the ground, the monophylla berries grow on stiff, upright branches, making them easier to harvest. The plant appears to flower at the same time, with fruit ripening simultaneously. That means berries from the plants could be harvested in one swoop with a piece of machinery, Swartz said.

”We’re talking about savings of thousands of dollars an acre to harvest them,” Swartz said.

But he had a problem. The single-bladed plant is a rarity, a genetic anomaly that he has to understand, replicate, then produce in large quantities. He enlisted the help of Gary Coleman, a professor at Maryland who works on plant genetics.

Coleman is trying to isolate the genes that create the monophylla traits, then find a way to breed them in the strawberry Swartz is trying to build. That may not be possible - Coleman is fairly certain that the gene is recessive, meaning dominant genes would muscle it out if it is reproduced on a large scale. However, it could be accomplished through genetic engineering, turning off the dominant genes so the monophylla traits take hold.

”I’m pretty confident I can do that,” Coleman said.

It will likely take some time. Swartz estimates it could take five to 10 years to produce the strawberry he wants, incorporating new flavors and the single-stem plant. But he hopes to have 20,000 of the traditional triple-bladed plants growing moschata-flavored berries ready by next year.

Swartz realizes he may be stretching too much to create this ideal berry, laughing nervously when he admits there may be big issues like consumer resistance to genetically engineered food. And while the scientist in him relishes the challenge of overcoming agricultural roadblocks, the businessman would be equally satisfied with a strawberry people will buy.

”The perfect strawberry is the one that makes you money,” he said.

                                  PART 2

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AUTHOR: Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, USA, Press Release


DATE:   19.06.2007

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Five Aces Breeding LLC, University of Maryland seek to replicate the perfect plant through MIPS

COLLEGE PARK, Md., June 19 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Five Aces Breeding owner Harry Swartz spent 30 years traveling the world on a quest to find the perfect strawberry plant.

Miles of fields and half a million strawberry plants later, in a row of strawberries in Huelva, Spain, Swartz found it -- a strawberry plant with single-bladed leaves, dozens of single-flowered trusses, each holding one berry -- all ripening at the same time.

”It was extraordinary because I didn’t imagine what it would look like, but within five seconds I realized it was a million-dollar plant,” said Swartz.

That million-dollar plant, nicknamed the ”Monophylla” Strawberry, is the subject of a new study conducted at the University of Maryland by Gary Coleman, associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Landscape Architecture, to determine the genes responsible for the new variety, as well as its optimal growth environment, such as temperature, sunlight and day length.

The one-year study is supported by $63,000 in Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program funding.

”This one plant could be instrumental in successfully resolving one of the main challenges in strawberry growing -- getting the berries to ripen at the same time,” said Swartz. ”Uniform ripening makes mechanical harvesting possible.”

Mechanical harvesting could reduce costs for growers by $5,000 to $10,000 per acre, since fresh strawberries are picked almost exclusively by hand, according to Swartz.

Strawberry plants usually have triple-bladed leaves that ripen on multi- branched, multi-flowered trusses, maturing over the course of several weeks. Both ripe fruits and flowers often occur on the same cluster.

But if Swartz and Coleman succeed, each plant will feature multiple, single-branched trusses, each with a single strawberry, all ripening at the same time, on branches well presented for harvesting.

Once the genetic and breeding behavior for the ”Monophylla” are determined, the next challenge will be breeding a plant with other traits required for commercial production.

”The trait that makes ’Monophylla’ Strawberry perfect is likely recessive, so breeding it with other varieties possessing firm or flavorful berries on stiff, upright trusses will be trying, as the normal dominant gene can mask the ’perfect’ trait in the resulting seedling,” said Swartz. ”It is difficult enough to breed a typical plant producing berries with great characteristics - - succulent flavor and firm fruit, on plenty of single upright trusses. The combination of traits yielding superior eating experience occurs on only one of every thousand seedlings.”

Superior eating experiences are collectively a major goal for Swartz.

”We plan to offer gourmet varieties of strawberries with hints of flavors for specific countries -- cinnamon-flavored berries for South America, vanilla for Great Britain, floral for France, and chocolate for the U.S.,” said Swartz. ”We want something that will compete with Hershey’s chocolate candy.”

Some of those varieties will debut next spring.

Sole owner of Five Aces Breeding LLC, in Laurel, Md., and co-owner of Colorado-based Ruby Mountain Nursery, Swartz also breeds raspberries and blackberries. Five Aces is the world’s largest producer of raspberry seedlings, beating its competitor by nearly double the seedlings, according to Swartz.

Maryland’s cool western mountains, where Swartz plans to move Five Aces Breeding, is exceptional for growing plump strawberries and large firm raspberries, but it also reduces another major contributor to multiple branching -- warm temperatures.

Five Aces has several breeding fields in Garrett County, Md., already.

Swartz’s love for strawberries began in the backyard of his grandparents’ homes in Buffalo, N.Y., where they grew their own strawberries, rhubarb and ”Concord” grapes. ”They always told me not to pick the strawberries or take them away,” he said. ”It made them seem like a forbidden fruit.”

The Five Aces Breeding company name came from Swartz’s notion that ”every seedling is like a hand of cards; it’s rare to see something extraordinary. To have five aces you have to use a wild card. Ours has been the use of wild berry species.”

Swartz may have a new fifth ace with the ”Monophylla” Strawberry plant.


For photos of the perfect strawberry plant, please visit

About the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program (MIPS)


The Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program, an initiative of the A. James Clark School of Engineering’s Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, brings university innovation to the commercial sector by supporting university-based research projects to help Maryland companies develop technology-based products.

About Five Aces Breeding LLC (

Five Aces Breeding is the privatization of the University of Maryland small fruit breeding programs. Formally incorporated in 2002, the company and its client companies, Berry World Ltd., Vitalberry Marketing, Giumarra and Arofa, have raspberry breeding fields in Chile, England, Spain, Mexico, and several states. Five Aces Breeding has strawberry breeding fields in Chile, Miami (Pine Is. Produce), Richmond (Chesterfield Berry Farm), Western Maryland and Pennsylvania and Quebec (Novafruit).



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