27 Sep 2017

NZ scientists aim to breed 'super' berry

8:26 am on 27 September 2017

Scientists are investigating the potential for a new commercial crop of a "super" hybrid blueberry.

Plant and Food Research is trying to breed a hybrid superfruit that combines the taste and growing characteristics of blueberries with the colourful flesh of bilberries.

Scientists hope the new berry will have the flesh of a bilberry and the skin of a blueberry. Photo: Supplied / Plant & Food Research Ltd

Plant & Food Research is trying to breed a fruit that combines the taste and growing characteristics of blueberries with the colourful flesh of bilberries.

Bilberries are a small berry from Northern Europe with dark blue-red flesh, but with a thin skin they're too delicate to grow commercially because the fruit is easily damaged in transit.

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The bilberry has dark red-blue flesh. Photo: Supplied

Plant & Food Research scientist Richard Espley said a hybrid of the two berries could result in a very valuable crop for New Zealand because most fruit, including blueberries, held all their nutrients in the skin.

"If you've noticed, when you bite into a blueberry, only the skin is coloured - inside the flesh is white.

"That skin colour is associated with a number of positive phytochemicals that are good in our diet.

"With bilberry, it's coloured all the way through, and it's got all these phytochemicals that are not just found in the skin but also throughout the whole flesh... it gives you a real high dose of these nutritional compounds."

The bilberry doesn't work well as a horticultural crop because of its fairly low yield and delicate berries, but Mr Espley said if it was bred with the robust characteristics of a blueberry the result could be a winner.

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Richard Espley Photo: Supplied

"We want this new super berry to have all the qualities of a blueberry but with this coloured flesh and all the health benefits of a bilberry."

"We hope to create a completely new berry and I think there will be a big premium associated with that; it fits well with New Zealand in creating the very best products. This is a whole new category."

The $5 million five-year Plant & Food Research-led programme is supported through the government's Endeavour Fund.

As part of the project, scientists are also looking at the genetic pathways that control flesh colour in fruits, which they say would allow breeders to develop better cultivars faster, as seedlings could be screened in at an early stage of a hybrid breeding programme.

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