His name is Sean Myles but his moniker could well be the latter-day Johnny Appleseed. Dr. Myles, an assistant professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Agricultural Genetic Diversity at Dalhousie University, is the lead scientist behind the Apple Biodiversity Collection, a research orchard he established in collaboration with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada that contains more than a thousand different apple varieties.
“Right now we actually have 1,113, but since we lose some from time to time, we say ‘over a thousand varieties’ just to be safe,” says Dr. Myles. The collection includes “everything you could find in the grocery store” plus heirloom varieties, elite cultivars and more than 200 different wild varieties from the forests of Kazakhstan where the fruit originates. The purpose behind the collection is twofold: to be a living seed bank for preservation and to help breeders to develop new commercially viable apple varieties through advanced genomics technology.
The technology is used “to establish relationships between genes and traits so that we can accelerate the breeding of improved cultivars” with better fruit that require less chemical input, says Dr. Myles. Traditional breeding techniques – essentially taking the pollen from one variety and putting it on the flower of another – can take years. But now, “with a simple genetic test, I can make a fairly good prediction abut which offspring will have the traits I want. I can increase the efficiency of that breeding process by orders of magnitude.”
To put the collection together, Dr. Myles turned for help to the U.S. Department of Agriculture research station in Geneva, New York, with which he’d developed a good relationship when he was doing a postdoctoral fellowship at nearby Cornell University. “I called the folks at the USDA and said I’d like to make a request for some plant material.” They instructed him to go to the website and fill out a form – people usually request two or three cuttings at a time. “But, I told them, I want to request the entire collection.”
The USDA “knew we were serious,” says Dr. Myles, and concluded it was a unique opportunity to have their collection duplicated elsewhere. Dr. Myles proceeded to do just that, bolstering it with Canadian varieties, at an Agriculture Canada research facility in Kentville, Nova Scotia. “Everything I do here at the research station is a collaboration between Ag Canada and the university,” he says. “Both teams really benefit in terms of the infrastructure and research expertise we can bring together as a group.”
The researchers didn’t plant seeds but grafted what’s called “bud wood” to root stock. The trees are now just over two years old and aren’t mature enough yet to produce fruit, which takes about five years. Dr. Myles can’t wait until they do: “It will be fascinating when these trees reach maturity. You’ll be able to walk through a forest of apple trees that represents the world’s diversity of this fruit.”
But one thing Dr. Myles won’t be able to do when that happens is taste the apples – he’s allergic to them. “Yes, it’s ironic,” he says.