Courtesy North Carolina State UniversityTomato breeder Dilip Panthee works to develop cultivars that will do well in North Carolina.At North Carolina State University, high-tech meets tradition in tomato plant breeding.
The Raleigh, N.C.-based institution boasts the nation's largest university-based plant program, according to a news release.
North Carolina's tomato industry alone is valued at about $30 million annually, according to the release.
Dilip Panthee leads tomato breeding, having joined the university about five years ago. He took over the program from Randy Gardner, who retired after developing 60 percent to 75 percent of the vine-ripe tomato varieties grown in the East.
Panthee brought with him high-tech skills, such as molecular marker-assisted breeding.
The technique does not involve genetic engineering.
Instead, it involves looking for markers, or segments of DNA near specific traits.
If the markers are present, then breeders can fairly well be assured that the trait also is in the plant after they make crosses, using traditional techniques.
Take tomato mosaic virus, for example.
Panthee has identified the marker linked to the TMV resistance gene.
As he breeds, he keeps plants that contain the resistance gene and eliminates those that don't.
What it does is speed breeding and variety development, to some extent.
Panthee says he expects to begin releasing disease-resistant cultivars developed through marker-assisted breeding within the next two to three years.
Working with Gardner, he has already developed Mountain Merit, a high-yielding, fresh-market cultivar that's resistant to late blight, tomato spotted wilt virus and rootknot nematode.
In addition, he released Mountain Majesty, a large-fruited tomato with improved fruit color and tomato spotted wilt resistance.