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June 6, 2023

DOVER, Del. – A Delaware State University Post Doctorate has received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) in support of research relating to genetics and blueberries.

The grant-supported project investigates the genetics underlying how blueberry plants respond to high-temperature stress tolerance and how the genetic information can help blueberry researchers and farmers to maximize fruit yields under warmer climate scenarios. 

Dr. Krishnanand P. Kulkarni, a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in the University’s Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is the Principal Investigator (PI) to lead this project, and his supervisor, Dr. Kalpalatha Melmaiee (small fruit-crop breeder and Associate Professor at DSU) serves as co-PI. Dr. Kulkarni is a part of Dr. Melmaiee’s blueberry research team.

Blueberries are perennial shrubs native to eastern North America and Canada. Blueberries are recognized as a rich source of health-promoting phytochemicals, including polyphenols and anthocyanins, which are reported to protect against carcinogenicity and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative changes related to aging. Due to these benefits, consumer demand for blueberries has been steadily increasing. 

The United States is the largest blueberry-producing country in the world. According to 2022 National Agricultural Statistics Services data, approximately 669 million pounds of blueberries were harvested in 2020, with a value of $765 million. 

Blueberries have stringent growth conditions and are highly sensitive to temperature fluctuations. Since the global mean temperature continues to increase at a rapid rate due to climate change, heat stress is expected to become an even more critical threat to blueberry cultivation than it is today. Hence, developing heat-stress-tolerant varieties is crucial to sustaining blueberry cultivation and production in the future. 

Southern blueberry species adapt better to warmer climates, and University researchers are interested in utilizing these species to identify genes or genomic regions controlling the high-temperature stress tolerance in blueberries. “This research is needed to improve the plant’s performance under adverse environmental conditions and its ability to adapt to worldwide climatic zones.” Dr. Kulkarni said.

As part of the research project.  the University researchers will develop a genetic map, which could be valuable resource for identifying heat tolerance genes.

“This USDA grant will help us gain an in-depth knowledge of genetic control of high-temperature stress tolerance in blueberries,” Dr. Kulkarni said. “The success of the project will have broad positive effects, as it will help farmers to harvest high-quality and higher-yield crops. Besides, this project will help provide training to the graduate/undergraduate students in the application of cutting-edge technology in molecular breeding.” 

Dr. Kulkarni intends to share his findings in national/international journals, as well as in scientific and agriculture-related meetings/workshops.