“I keep on selecting plants that contain the TMV resistance genes and discard the plants that do not have TMV resistance,” he explains. “That way I can enhance these generations quickly.”

Panthee expects to begin releasing disease-resistant cultivars born of these methods within the next two or three years.

Already, in collaboration with Gardner, Panthee has helped develop Mountain Merit, a high-yielding, fresh-market cultivar with resistance to late blight, tomato spotted wilt virus and root-knot nematodes, and Mountain Majesty, a large-fruited tomato with improved fruit color and resistance to tomato spotted wilt virus.

Working with his Mills River colleague Jeanine Davis, Panthee also has developed heirloom tomato hybrids that are taste-test winners and would work well for organic farmers. And with Penny Perkins-Veazie of the college’s Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis, Panthee is looking at ways to produce tomatoes with high levels of lycopene, a health-enhancing antioxidant. They are getting close, he says, to releasing a grape hybrid line with just such qualities.

While Panthee’s work focuses on tomatoes bred especially for North Carolina’s growing conditions, he’s also advancing the science of plant breeding as well as our understanding of molecular-level plant-pathogen interactions.

With scientists from Cornell University, he is collaborating on a $4 million National Science Foundation-funded research project designed to shed light on the protein-based war that takes place when pathogens infect a plant. The study focuses on what happens when susceptible and resistant varieties are exposed to Pseudomonas syringae, which causes bacterial speck.

“We want to see what types of proteins are transcribed and how they are expressed and how they behave in resistant and susceptible lines,” Panthee says. “And the approach we are using can be used to explore interactions between other pathogens and other plants – for example, rice or pepper or corn.”

Making sure that such research has practical significance for North Carolina growers is, in the end, what Panthee’s breeding program is all about.

“The best approach,” he says, “is to develop high-yielding varieties while minimizing post-harvest losses. That increases the amount of marketable fruit, which means the cost of production for our tomato growers will be less. And that means they can be competitive.”

 

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