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No more seeds in watermelons?

University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences developmental biologist Dennis J. Gray and horticulturist Gary W. Elmstrom have devised a tissue culture process that will cut seven to 10 years off the time it takes to develop a new variety of seedless watermelon. The patented process is expected to remove one of the major obstacles toward development of seedless varieties - producing enough seed.

"In the future, seedless watermelons will overtake seeded watermelons in the marketplace," Gray claims. "The only reason why seedless watermelons aren't common right now are some of the inherent problems in production and this patent removes one of the biggest ones."

Although seedless watermelons are of better quality, command a higher price, and have a longer shelf life than seeded varieties, technical difficulties in producing seed have kept the availability of planting stock low and the cost of seed prohibitively high. Elmstrom believes the process could make seed more readily available, reducing the price of seed from $1,000 a pound to somewhere between $10 and $100. These dramatically lower prices could persuade growers to plant seedless varieties on significantly more than the five percent of the nation's 200,000 acres now dedicated to seedless varieties.

Elmstrom, who is a watermelon breeder, and Gray, a tissue culture expert, collaborated on the tissue culture process that clones thousands of watermelon plants in months from breeding lines that normally produce so few seeds, it takes 10 to 15 years to develop a new seedless strain. A seedless watermelon is created by crossbreeding two parent lines - one with two copies of each chromosome in each cell and another with four copies. The offspring is a watermelon that is seedless because it has three copies of each chromosome in each cell, rather than the usual two.

Because all commercially grown watermelons have two copies of each chromosome in each cell, lines for use in breeding are abundant. However, scientists must spend years producing enough seed for the second parent because genetic problems make it difficult for them to cross-breed the plants with themselves.

To accelerate the process, G ray and Elmstrom placed a small piece of tissue from a growing tip of a watermelon into a petri dish filled with nutrients and growth regulators. From that one tip, you can get right away up to 15 shoots," Gray Points out. "The next step is that you can use those shoots to produce more cultures. The rate of increase of shoots is geometric, so within a few weeks, you can have hundreds of shoots."
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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