Local students assist in apple research

From left, college intern Josh VanDeMortel, high school student Cooper Whiteleather, college intern Jake Grimaldi, high school student Jessica Fisk and Plant Breeder and Research Geneticist Gennaro Fazio work together conducting research on apple rootstock at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.

GENEVA — The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree ... or the ground.

A recent wave of agriculture uses rootstock from disease-resistant dwarf apple trees to increase production, decrease the need for sprays, and eliminate the danger of ladders. Branches or buds are grafted into dwarf tree roots to create apple trees planted by millions today. In these orchards, the trees grow close together along poles or wires, allowing more trees to grow per acre.

The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva collaborates with the USDA Agricultural Research Service — the largest organization for agricultural research in the world — housing the only apple rootstock research and breeding program in the western hemisphere.

This summer, local high school students Cooper Whiteleather and Jessica Fisk and college interns Jake Grimaldi and Josh VanDeMortel will work at the station under the direction of Italian-born USDA-ARS Plant Breeder and Research Geneticist Gennaro Fazio. They will conduct research and work on projects to develop and expand the rootstock industry.

Research in Geneva has influenced dwarf apple rootstock since it began. Over 50 years ago, dwarfing rootstock “M26” was developed in Malling, England. Malling already had its roots spread to orchards across the world, and this new development gained immediate popularity. However, M26 had several vulnerabilities including susceptibility to soil fungi and fire blight.

In 1967 Dr. James Cummins and Herbert Aldwinckle brought this new wave of apple breeding to Cornell University in Geneva and later were joined by Terence Robinson. Their mission was to develop yield-efficient, disease-resistant apple rootstock. They tested seedlings against root rot, other fungi and fire blight. It was a tedious and lengthy process, but results were successful and they released several disease-resistant rootstocks.

Cummins retired in 1995, leaving his work to Fazio, who began at the Experiment Station in 2001. Continuing his research, Fazio released a new set of unique dwarfing rootstocks: the Geneva rootstocks. Before long they were known and preferred by apple growers around the world.

Fazio admits, “I had no idea what [apple rootstock genetics] was when I applied ... it was a job.”

Now passionate, he explains the continuing research “to pair new varieties of rootstock to grafted varieties developed by breeders around the world.” The students and interns working with Fazio this summer will assist in this process.

Fisk will learn the ropes in lab root gene expression and work on imaging roots and micropropagation, “an art and a science that few people have skill in,” Fazio said.

Whiteleather will analyze CAT scans of graft unions and work on groundbreaking high-definition root system imaging.

Grimaldi, aerospace engineering student at the University of Alabama, will engineer instruments to collect growth data on apple roots, including an underground viewing station for root systems.

Now known as the nursery expert, VanDeMortel will care for the 1,000-5,000 seedlings at the research station. He is a third-year electrical engineering and business student at the University at Buffalo.

“I can’t stress how important their help is,” Fazio said. “Their work is important.”

Their research also won’t stop here. Some day, Fazio hopes to see apple rootstock develop “the ability to grow things naturally without needing pesticides.”

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