Researchers at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) are looking for ways to improve production of crops such as squash and watermelon.
Geoffrey Meru, assistant professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at TREC, is one of the researchers examining key challenges limiting growers’ success and addressing them through breeding and genetic research. He focuses on squash and watermelon, as these are some of the most profitable vegetable crops in Florida.
Meru’s breeding program aims to develop high-yielding vegetable cultivars that are resistant to diseases. For squash, one of the main issues for growers is a pathogen called Phytophthora capsici that causes crown, root and fruit rot. Meru says that the disease is particularly severe in South Florida areas, such as Miami-Dade County, where hot, humid and rainy weather conditions lead to rapid establishment of the pathogen. Watermelon growers are concerned about Fusarium wilt, gummy stem blight and emerging viruses, which continue to cause significant crop losses, Meru says.
Yield is also of high importance in the breeding program. “Growers want to make more money per acre, which means we have to breed cultivars that yield more fruit per acre,” says Meru. His program also breeds for improved fruit quality, including flavor, fruit shape and sweetness, which can help growers succeed in the market.
At TREC, Meru says scientists with various backgrounds collaborate on projects, allowing problems to be solved from multiple perspectives. “We are able to tackle growers’ problems by combining experience from different expertise at TREC,” he says.
In an effort to increase expertise in the area of plant breeding in Florida and beyond, Meru’s program mentors graduate and undergraduate school students in applied and fundamental research. He is currently mentoring three graduate students who will join the workforce with experience in breeding and genetics.
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