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Environment

Fort Worth Researchers Awarded Grant To Study Blueberries & Ferns — But COVID May Slow Their Work

FILE - In this July 27, 2012 file photo, wild blueberries await harvesting in Warren, Maine. The state's wild blueberry crop suffered in 2020 due to drought and a lack of labor caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
FILE - In this July 27, 2012 file photo, wild blueberries await harvesting in Warren, Maine. The state's wild blueberry crop suffered in 2020 due to drought and a lack of labor caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Peter Fritsch, the herbarium director and vice president of research at BRIT, is leading the blueberry project, which includes researchers from Duke University and N.C. State University.

He said the blueberries you buy at the store are bred for size and flavor, but wild blueberries are, well, wilder.

“There’s a lot of variation in the flavor of wild blueberries,” Fritsch said. Some are not exactly delicious, while “others are just dynamite.”

In the 1940s, researchers determined there were about 25 species of wild blueberries, but Fritsch said there's never actually been a consensus on that.

Modern technology could help Fritsch and his team end the 80-year-old questions about the number of wild blueberry species. Unlike scientists in the ’40s, Fritsch’s team can use techniques like DNA sequencing to figure out how species differ from one another.

They can also find which DNA sections give wild blueberries different qualities, like flavor, hardiness or resistance to disease.

“We can take this data, we can take this genomic data, and then we can apply it to making a better blueberry,” he said.

Fritsch plans to travel around the country to collect wild blueberry samples, a plan that the COVID-19 pandemic could delay.

Ale Vasco, the BRIT research botanist in charge of the project to study Colombian ferns, is facing the same challenge. For her research, she's teaming up with the University of Vermont and Colombian scientists for six expeditions, to travel to places scientists haven’t been in hundreds of years, or ever. That travel isn’t scheduled to begin until 2022.

The goal is to explore the vast diversity of ferns in Colombia, which only gets harder as time goes on.

“What is happening now on Earth, is that the process of documenting and describing species cannot keep up with the habitat loss and also with the extinction of species,” she said.

However, there is still plenty to discover. Vasco said she expects her team to find more than 200 new fern species.

“This is important not only to better understand the biodiversity that we have, but also to understand the tree of life that includes humans, and that includes animals and plants,” she said.

Both Fritsch and Vasco plan to start their research with herbaria — or collections of preserved plant specimens — in the United States.

Vasco even expects to make some discoveries in the herbaria. Fern specimens collected years ago may just be sitting in collections, waiting for someone with the right expertise to come along and realize they’re a new species.

That’s why both Vasco and Fritsch are going to work with students on their projects.

“We need to train the next generation of people who can work and can care for those collections, and can also curate those collections,” Vasco said.

Both projects will continue for the next several years. To cap things off, Vasco and her team are planning an exhibition with BRIT’s library, and Fritsch and his team want to write a children’s book about blueberry science.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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