Venture Into Agricultural Science At Disney World
Epcots Lexie McKently and ARS horticulturist John Cordts plan improved
methods for adding new genes to peaches.
Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Naia the baby dolphin, and the Magic Kingdom Park
are not the only exciting attractions at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando,
Behind a glass wall at Epcot, ARS horticulturist John Cordts works magic
with tissue-cultured peach plants in a laboratory that boasts the highest
"It's a unique work environment," he says. "Every minute or
so, about 40 people gaze into my lab."
Cordts hopes to transform the genetic makeup of peaches so that the fruit
can ripen on the tree longer, yet stay firm enough for shipping. This would
make for a juicier, better tasting peach in the produce bin. The project is
part of a collaborative research effort that has been ongoing for several
The lab is located in The Land at Epcot, a 2-acre, intensive food crop
production and research facility presented by Nestlé USA. The Land's
main attraction is a 15-minute boat ride through a series of greenhouses
showcasing agricultural research and production systems that emphasize
sustainable agriculture. Each day, thousands of guests ride by the
USDA-ARS-sponsored lab to see scientists conducting state-of-the-art
"Our main objective here is to communicate the science of agriculture.
We do this by showcasing various toolssuch as biotechnologyand our
important world food and fiber crops," says Lexie McKently. She manages
the biotechnology program at The Land.
Horticulturist Ralph Scorza (top) and technician Kevin Webb use scanning
electron microscopy to inspect a growing tip, or meristem, of a peach twig.
Before 1995, McKently was working on peanut transformation under the joint
research program with USDA-ARS. Since then, the focus has been shifted to
genetically altering peaches.
The collaboration involves the ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in
Kearneysville, West Virginia, where scientists have isolated a gene that could
alter the ripening characteristics of peaches. This gene could allow the fruit
to be picked ripe from the tree while retaining enough firmness to withstand
Before assignment to Disney, Cordts was based at the Kearneysville lab.
Horticulturist Ralph Scorza and molecular biologist Ann Callahan have been
working for several years at Kearneysville on improving the quality of
Technician Linda Dunn analyzes DNA sequences of peach ACC oxidase that
regulates fruit ripening.
In addition to supplying the gene, we give John and other Epcot
scientists technical support for this work, Scorza says. Were
fortunate to have this cooperative research with Disney, because Florida's
warmer temperatures and longer growing season will help the newly transformed
peach trees bear fruit earlier."
Callahan says that the gene provided to Cordts codes for the peach fruit
enzyme ACC oxidase that is crucial to ripening. Inserting the gene backwards
should drastically decrease its effect.
"This enzyme is essential for the last step of ripening, when most
softening occurs," Callahan says. "If we can slow down that final
step, it would give the peach more time to stay on the tree without becoming
too soft to ship."
This would delay ripening and increase shelf life, yet maintain the fruit's
taste and appearance. Even a few more days of natural ripening on the tree can
make a significant difference in the flavor of a peach.
At Epcot, Cordts will use two methods to insert the gene into
Tourists in Orlando, Florida, visit the biotechnology lab in The Land exhibit
where ARS horticulturist John Cordts discusses genetic engineering techniques
with Epcot biotechnologist Deenie Lane.
"With a gene gun, we'll fire gold particles that are coated with DNA
containing the gene into shoot tips of several different peach varieties,"
he explains. "We'll also insert the new gene with Agrobacterium
tumefaciens, a bacterium commonly used in genetic engineering."
It could take from 3 to 6 months to determine whether or not plants are
carrying the new gene. By then, the shoot tips will be young trees, ready for
the greenhouse. But it will be a couple of years more before they bear fruit,
This means field testing is still a few years away. At that time,
well work with USDAs Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for
permits to test the genetically altered peach trees." -- By Doris
Callahan are at the USDA-ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station, 45
Wiltshire Rd., Kearneysville, WV 25430; phone (304) 725-3451 ext. 322.
"Venture Into Agricultural Science At Disney World" was
published in the July
1996 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.