UF/IFAS Researchers Discover Genes Responsible for Flavor Compounds in Strawberries

Jim Rogers Strawberry

University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) scientists have found the genes behind several aromatic chemicals that enhance the strawberry’s taste.

Vance Whitaker, left, with Zhen Fan, now a post-doctoral researcher in Whitaker’s lab. Photo courtesy of Vance Whitaker, UF/IFAS.

These findings will help UF/IFAS researchers Vance Whitaker and Seonghee Lee as they study the sources of the unique aroma in strawberries. The genes that control aroma and flavor are connected.

“Finding the sources of a strawberry’s smell gets complicated. Aroma comes from more than 100 chemicals, so studying the genetics can become byzantine,” said Whitaker, a professor of horticultural sciences at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.

Whitaker and Lee are co-authors of a new UF/IFAS study on strawberry flavor. Zhen Fan, now a post-doctoral researcher in Whitaker’s lab, led the study as part of his doctoral dissertation in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

For the newly published study in the journal New Phytologist, a team of scientists found the genes behind several dozen aromatic chemicals and the regulators that turn the genes on as the fruit ripens.

First, they harvested more than 300 types of strawberries with different scents. Then they measured the chemicals from each. They also sequenced DNA of each of the approximate 100,000 genes in a given strawberry.

“Finding the genes that bring out the aroma is a big step forward in understanding the genetics of flavor,” Whitaker said. “With this knowledge, we are developing tools such as DNA markers to breed more efficiently for flavor.”

UF/IFAS strawberry scientists already use DNA markers in seedlings to evaluate some genes that provide strawberries their flavor. Scientists know the fruits taste good even before they plant the strawberries. Whitaker and his team keep the ones with the best flavor and get rid of the rest.

Consumers love a strawberry that tastes good. A 2016 study showed that freshness and taste are the two most important qualities shoppers seek in strawberries.

In Florida, farmers grow strawberries on about 11,000 acres, and the fruit carries a $400 million-a-year wholesale value. Florida grows most of the nation’s domestic winter crop. California produces strawberries near year-round. Nationwide, strawberries are valued at about $2.2 billion.

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