Genetic levers found for blueberries’ healthy properties

Blueberry breeders may eventually be able to select for varieties high in health-promoting antioxidants, now that researchers have found the genetics which start up those compounds’ production.

The University of Victoria reports that one of its plant biologists, Peter Constabel, has led a team that’s now the first in the world to show how — at the molecular, genetic level — blueberries ripen and produce antioxidants called flavonoids.

The team identified genes that are turned off during the molecular process that makes bitter-but-healthy compounds known as tannins as the berries ripen, and are switched on when the berry’s blue-purple flavonoid pigments are produced.

The UVic team also ran a chemical analysis of flavonoids, and found that the skin of blueberries contains the greatest variety and quantity of these health-promoting chemicals. Antioxidant compounds are known to protect cells from reactive oxygen compounds linked to aging, cancer, cell inflammation and neurodegenerative ailments, among other conditions.

Working with researchers in Saskatchewan, the UVic researchers said, they have also identified a plant hormone that appears to play a “key role” in blueberry ripening.

“Plant breeders can use our results to select for high antioxidant berry varieties and to try and get greater control over the ripening process,” Constabel said in a UVic release.

“We already knew a lot about the chemical composition of blueberries, but until now very little about how flavonoid antioxidants are formed by the fruit as it ripens,” he added. “This new knowledge has tremendous potential for (British Columbia’s) blueberry industry and, ultimately, for our health.”

The study is also the first of its kind to look at blueberries from a molecular and multidisciplinary perspective, he said. “I don’t know of any other fruit where all of these research tools have been applied in one study.”

Study partners included berry farmers and scientists from government agencies in the agriculture, biotechnology and horticulture sectors, the university said.

Canada is the world’s third largest producer of highbush blueberries, UVic noted, adding that about 98 per cent of the country’s $1 billion blueberry crop comes from B.C.

Over 700 farmers in the province produce over 40 million kg of berries annually, the university said.

Results of the study by Constabel’s team were published last month in the journal Plant Physiology.

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