From toast to themed restaurants, the avocado has soared in popularity in the United States. Consumption is up from 436.6 million pounds annually to 2.4 billion pounds between 1985 and 2018.
Researchers from Texas Tech University and the University of Buffalo have studied avocados in a way that is best described as a 23andMe test. They compared the roots of the Hass cultivar (a Mexican-Guatemalan hybrid) and a Mexican strain, to West Indian, Guatemalan, and other Mexican varieties. They discovered that the avocado genome has naturally evolved over time to increase its resistance to disease—a finding that could be significant for the future of avocado breeding.
The discovery could help growers breed more disease-resistant avocados, and eventually lead to varieties that are drought-resistant or less temperature sensitive, and can be grown in northern and drier climates. More growing options could help supply match demand and protect shoppers from a price hike like this year’s. In early July, avocado prices were 129 percent higher than they were at the same time in 2018.
Despite the study’s findings on disease resistance, researcher Victor Albert, one of the study’s authors, says that avocado tree roots are susceptible to fungal rots. One possible solution, he says, is to use genome-assisted breeding—that is, identify a gene that performs a protective function, look for that gene in various avocado varieties, and then breed new strains that contain the desired genes. (CRISPR guacamole, anyone?)
Albert says that the avocado species was a “natural study topic” for him. In addition to being a professor of biological sciences at the University of Buffalo, he is an evolutionary biologist with interests in the genomic bases that differentiate plant species. He believes that climate change and accompanying disease changes are the biggest factors that impact avocado agriculture, and felt this research would be helpful for the future of avocado breeding.