CLEMSON — Clemson horticulture and genetics researchers are part of national team of scientists working on economically important fruit crops. The USDA has awarded the first year of a $10 million, five-year competitive grant, of which Clemson will receive $1.2 million.

Researchers will work in 22 U.S. breeding programs focused on eight crops: apple, blackberry, peach, pear, rose, strawberry, sweet cherry and tart cherry.

Peach trees in bloom at Clemson University Musser Research Farm.

Peach trees bloom at the Clemson University Musser Research Farm.

The project, “RosBREED: Combining Disease Resistance with Horticultural Quality in New Rosaceous Cultivars,” includes 35 scientists from 14 U.S. institutions and numerous international cooperators. Rosaceae are a family of flowering plants, home to the genus Prunus, which includes plums, cherries, peaches, apricots and almonds.

New DNA tools will enable U.S. breeders to rapidly develop new varieties — horticulturists call them “cultivars “— that have superior fruit production and quality combined with disease resistance.

This means that farmers will have more options to sustainably protect their crops, while consumers and the entire supply chain will benefit from fruit that has better taste, nutrition, shelf life and appearance.

Clemson faculty from the School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences (SAFES) and the genetics and biochemistry department will provide research expertise, particularly in peaches, a Clemson specialty.

SAFES peach breeder Ksenija Gasic, leader of the stone fruit (fruit with pits) breeding team in the project, will concentrate on combining fruit quality with peach disease resistances. Greg Reighard and Guido Schnabel, also SAFES faculty, will provide expertise for the identification of plant stress resistance.

Clemson’s Genomics and Computational Biology Laboratory will serve as the “hub” to collect information from U.S. and international scientists working on genetic improvements to Prunus species, according to laboratory director Chris Saski.

Plant population geneticist Amy Lawton-Rauh will focus on evolutionary and comparative genomics to combine desirable traits among cultivars and wild relatives.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative project will be managed by Amy Iezzoni of Michigan State University and Cameron Peace of Washington State University.