Perfection in pale peach

GENETIC ENGINEERING

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Consider the peach. It's the fruit you love to drip down your chin on a summer day. Sweet smelling and deliciously juicy. But oh so fragile and a quick spoiler.

Will there ever be a perfect, flawless peach?

Wayne Sherman says yes. At the University of Florida at Gainesville over the last 32 years, he has reached inside peaches, added and subtracted some genes, slowed down the ripening, added some color, and toughened them a little.

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The result of his recent efforts, according to Mr. Sherman and others, is the almost perfect peach. The name of this beauty is UFGold, now under a patent to the University of Florida and suitable for growing in subtropic areas.

Sherman, a horticulture professor at the university, is one of the preeminent plant breeders in the world. His UFGold peach is so new that orchards now growing the variety in California, Australia, Mexico, Spain, and Morocco won't harvest commercial crops until 2001.

The characteristics of the UFGold variety, called a "nonmelting" peach, are a combination of sweet taste, handsome color, and a firmness to survive shipping and enjoy a longer shelf life. "And they can be left on the trees longer so they become sweeter," Sherman says.

"Melting" varieties of peaches tend to soften on trees, which means they have to be picked sooner to get to market, thereby sacrificing optimum sweetness. This helps explain why many supermarket peaches can be bland, and peaches bought at roadside stands surrounded by peach trees can make grown people ooh and aah.

Sherman was awarded a 1998 US Department of Agriculture Honor Award for UFGold as well as recognition for 32 years of pioneering research in peaches, blueberries, nectarines, and other fruits. "I was floored that a poor Mississippi farm boy would be so honored," he says in his lyrical Southern voice. "My wife made me buy a suit to go to the ceremony in Washington."

Sherman's work has helped producers all over the world to remain competitive even while the peach industry has declined. Bad weather such as early frosts on the East Coast plus peach-tree diseases and falling prices have weakened the industry.

Following are excerpts from a recent interview with Sherman.

What is your definition of a perfect peach?

It's one you can buy in a store, and it would taste just like you picked it off the tree, firm and fully ripe. We are getting close to that.

What is missing?

The one thing that I could add is some superhigh flavors or aromas. I've just found some peaches with these aromas, much better than any commercial peaches today. I've tasted these, and what amazes me is that I can be full of peaches, and then I smell one of these and I want another one. I get tired of eating peaches easily, and when I come home at night and my wife puts peach cobbler in front of me, I turn my nose up. But when I found these peaches with superhigh aromas, I knew I had to put these aromas in my peaches.

Where did you find them?

One is the criolla peach grown in the Mexican highlands. And another was already within the varieties I had, in one special variety that was actually bred in the US and patented in France. I happened to see it in southern France in 1992, and I recognized it immediately as a superhigh aroma. It smells like you want to eat it.

To develop the UFGold, what did you do to the peach?

There is a major gene for firmness, and it was in the peaches used for commercial canning or processing. We have always called these peaches "nonmelting flesh." It dawned on me years ago that we could take that gene and put it in fresh market peaches to make them hardier. I just took that gene and brought it over. It sounds easy, but the problem is you bring a lot of bad things with it, and then we had to get rid of them. We also changed other genes for sweetness and ripening.

Genetic progress in peaches is based on three steps. First, you find genetic variability, either through biotechnology or just going out in the field and looking.

Second, you have to transfer it, either with a pair of tweezers or a gene gun or something else. It doesn't matter how.

Third is selection intensity, which is really a kind of field evaluation based on a breeder's experience. That's why plant breeders will never be eliminated.

As far as texture is concerned, the UFGold is simply firmer than most other peaches?

That's right. We have this gene in a lot of other fruits. The sweet cherry was the first to have it, and sweet cherries now are very crunchy, whereas the old varieties were soft. The plain seedless grape has that crunchiness now, and so do some cantaloupes.

After 32 years of research, what was it about the peach that surprised you the most?

What surprised me is what usually surprises us in life: Most complex things are pretty simple once we understand them. One of the things we learned from peaches is that we weren't as good a prophet as we were a historian. When you don't know how to do something, it looks tough to crack, but when you solve it, you say, 'Why didn't I figure that out sooner?' We are getting some pretty nice things in peaches now, and coming closer to what I consider to be the perfect peach.

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