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Working Towards a More Complex Cucumber

By Erin Peabody
March 2, 2007

The cucumber, it seems, is in a bit of a pickle. While this favorite salad accessory may be decidedly crisp and refreshing to the palate, it's a little boring—from a genetic standpoint.

That's according to Jack Staub, a plant geneticist with the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) Vegetable Crops Research Unit in Madison, Wis. One of only two non-private cucumber breeders in the country, Staub is trying to invigorate the humble cucumber, which suffers from an overly narrow genetic base.

That means if a vine-strangling virus strikes, or a far-reaching drought settles in, the country's entire cucumber crop could be in jeopardy. That's not good news for the average pickle-loving American who ate about 12 pounds of processed cucumbers last year. Compare that to the modest four pounds of small fruits each of us consumed.

Staub's strategy is to give cucumber's dismal DNA a boost by infusing it with more wild character. He and a cooperating Chinese scientist have already made solid headway, having successfully crossed an unusual wild cucumber species from China with a domestic one.

What's so attractive about this wild cucumber is that it possesses resistance to gummy stem blight and, possibly, to nematodes and certain viruses--some of cucumber's biggest foes.

Fortunately, the hybrids that Staub and his colleagues are developing cross readily with domestic cucumbers. He's still evaluating them for their horticultural potential but plans to eventually share the new and unique plant material with breeders all over the world.

Wild cucumbers are not Staub's only source of genetic inspiration. He's currently trying to unlock beneficial genes lurking inside wild melons. As a cousin to the cucumber, wild exotic melon types could become a source of valuable drought resistance and other traits.

What's frustrating the researcher, though, is that while cucumbers and some wild melon relatives are reproductively compatible, they just won't cross with domestic melon. Staub is committed to trying to solve this mystery--and to teasing out more valuable genes for cucumbers in the process.

Read more about the research in the March 2007 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.