The Quest to Design a Better Apple

Among the set of agricultural products targeted for improvement, apples are the beauty queen

apples-body.jpg

The grains and produce we eat are a work in progress: Through selective breeding, hybridization, and genetic modification, farmers and scientists are constantly rejiggering what kinds of rice we eat, or what kinds of apples are grown.

In the new issue of the New Yorker, John Seabrook profiles the efforts (paywall) to make a better variety of apples. Americans, provided with bland and mealy varieties, consume, on average, half as many apples as Europeans, he reports. He describes a visit to the orchard of David Bedford, a horticulturist and the inventor of a new, extra delicious apple called the SweeTango. Seabrook writes:

Bedford's apple laboratory, a thirty-acre parcel of rolling land about thirty miles west of Minneapolis, is planted with about twenty thousand apple trees. In May, during blossom time, Bedford and his student assistants make crosses between promising varieties: taking pollen from one variety and swabbing it onto the stamen of another, and then bagging those flowers to keep pollen from other trees out. Although the apple that grows on that branch will be true to the mother tree's DNA, the seeds will be heterozygous, combining equal and unique parts of both parents' genes, so that every seed is another thing apple trees and humans have in common. Bedford hopes to get the best characteristics of both parents into the offspring, while producing an apple with an identity all its own. "Some apples look great but don't pass those traits on," he told me, "while others are not so great looking but make good parents." Each one of the three to five thousand seeds that result from a season of crosses will be unlike all the others and will produce a different tree. Bedford plants the seeds in a greenhouse, and grafts the budding trees onto outdoor rootstock the following summer. In about five years, he will have four thousand or so brand-new apples to taste.

In the fall, during the apple harvest, Bedford tastes apples from blossom times past, up to five hundred apples a day, and the hope of finding that one apple in ten thousand that will be released as a commercial variety..

That holy grail variety -- taste, texture, color, high tree-yield -- could be worth a bundle: The patent for the Honeycrisp earned the University of Minnesota more than $10 million and royalties, its third-most-valuable patent ever, after an HIV drug and a vaccine for a virus that threatens pigs.

Image: Anton Prado PHOTO/Shutterstock.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Technology

Just In