March 13, 2008 By Fruit & Vegetable
Could the cucumber lose its cool?
According to geneticist Jack Staub, it just might. He says this salad
favourite suffers from an overly narrow genetic base. That means if
disease strikes or severe drought settles in, it’s possible that not
just a few cucumber plants will suffer — they all could.
Could the cucumber lose its cool? According to geneticist Jack Staub, it just might. He says this salad favourite suffers from an overly narrow genetic base. That means if disease strikes or severe drought settles in, it’s possible that not just a few cucumber plants will suffer — they all could.
Staub is working to invigorate cucumbers’ dismal DNA base with the help of wild relatives from southern Asia, the veggie’s birthplace. “It hasn’t been easy though,” he says, “since domestic cucumbers don’t cross easily with wild ones.” Twelve years ago, the Madison, Wisconsin-based researcher got lucky when an unusual wild cucumber species was discovered in China. Excited by its rarity and unlikely Chinese origins (the vegetable originated in India),
Staub and a Chinese colleague tried crossing it with a domestic cultivar. At first, they weren’t able to recover any offspring. Then, with the help of a technique called “embryo rescue,” some plants survived. And they were fertile, producing valuable seed for additional research. Staub says that his advanced hybrids now “cross freely with domestic cucumbers.” He’s evaluating these hybrids for their horticultural potential in hopes of sharing the unique germplasm with breeders all over the world. Now Staub faces a new obstacle: trying to cross the wild cucumber with its cousin, the melon. Why? Because untamed melons have a lot to offer domestic melons and cucumbers, including resistance to drought and pests. But Staub hasn’t been able to achieve a successful cross, even though the plants should be compatible reproductively, since they share the same number of chromosomes. One of only two public cucumber breeders in the country, Staub will continue trying to solve the mysteries of why the cucurbit cousins won’t cross and how such a rare cucumber plant arose in China.
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