Biotech apples may beat sunburn

Dan Wheat/Capital Press WSU research professor Don Elfving, left, visits with fellow research professor Larry Schrader before Schrader heads out the doors of the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center on April 1 for his retirement party. Schrader, former dean of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics, became an expert on apple sunburn.

Retired researcher challenges others to develop new strains

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- The most effective way to protect apples from sunburn in the future is genetic modification, according to an expert on apple sunburn.

"Our molecular biologists and apple breeder at WSU have asked me which genes are involved in the sunburning of apples, but I don't know which genes," said Larry Schrader, professor emeritus in horticulture and plant physiology at the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee.

"It's a challenge I want to dangle out there for the next researchers," he said.

The Washington state and U.S. apple industries recently asked the USDA not to allow genetically engineered, nonbrowning apples from Canada to be produced in the U.S. The industry fears negative public perception of genetically engineered products could hurt apple sales. But the industry said it might support genetically engineered apples in the future if benefits outweigh negatives.

Genetic modification is broader than genetic engineering in that modification includes conventional plant breeding that's been done for decades, Schrader said. Varieties for breeding are chosen for desired traits, he said.

"More education about these issues is needed to help the public understand that genetically modified fruit is safe," he said.

Schrader, 69, retired at the end of 2010. He and Ohio State University associate professor Jozsef Racsko are writing a comprehensive review of apple sunburn for the research journal Critical Reviews in Plant Science.

Schrader's retirement dinner was the evening of April 1. Colleagues roasted him and heralded his long and distinguished career.

"He's an eminent plant physiologist and applied his knowledge in a careful way," said Don Elfving, former center superintendent.

"His work has been very significant. Millions of dollars are lost every year to sunburn and his work led to mitigating that," Elfving said. "Sunburn has become more critical as we've moved to more high-density plantings of smaller trees where there's less shade canopy."

Schrader said the last 16 years of his 44-year career have been the most rewarding because of results in the sunburn work, helping "a progressive" industry that values research.

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