Chile seeks new kiwifruit varieties through Italian alliance
The University of Chile established an alliance with Italy's University of Udine in 2011 to create the PMG Chile-Italia program, designed to carry out studies on kiwifruit genetics.
The studies would then hopefully generate useful molecular markers to assist the breeding process called marker-assisted selection (MAS).
Chile is one of the biggest producers and exporters of kiwifruit in the world, but it faces strong competition in terms of price and productivity from New Zealand.
Chile's lower productivity can partly be explained by the fact that its leading variety, Hayward, was developed for climatic conditions different to those of the South American country.
"Molecular markers are biotechnological tools that help make the genotype selection process more efficient," said Pía Rubio from the program.
Rubio said the markers could be used to help distinguish, amongst other things, whether the plant is male or female. This is crucial as the males produce the pollen and the females produce the fruit.
"This project is focused on the search for good quality fruit, and our priority is therefore the female plants as they are the producers of the fruit," Rubio said.
In terms of the fruit quality, a number characteristics are receiving special attention: fruit size, flesh texture, soluble solids content, dry matter and acidity.
The project - which the representatives highlighted did not involve genetic modification - will create a genetic bank to serve as a base for potential kiwifruit parents.
Researchers are working with both green and yellow varieties, and the University of Udine - in charge of the yellow Sorelli variety - recently sent over genetic material to be evaluated in Chile.
"The University of Udine was already undertaking a breeding program and opened it up to collaborate with us," said Claudia Jorquera from the University of Chile's fruit breeding laboratory.
"The crosses that they are doing [in Italy] do not evaluate the post-harvest life, as almost all their fruit is destined for the domestic market, while on the other hand we really need a good post-harvest life."
With a duration of six years - and currently in its fifth year - Chile continues to import new genetic material. Jorquera said the program was currently evaluating the Sorelli variety.
"We're doing a test with different storage times, which will give us information on the potential post-harvest life of the fruit," she said.
The relationship with the Italian university is a reciprocal one. A University of Udine member is currently working with the researchers in Chile, while a member from the Chilean team is supporting the work in Italy.
"This project is in its initial stage," Jorquera said.
"As there was not a breeding program before this, the idea is that it continues. Competing with New Zealand is hard work, and a breeding program requires significant investment and years of research."
Another factor recently incorporated into the project is the fruit's resistance to the kiwifruit vine disease PSA, detected in Chile a few years ago.
"From this point onward one cannot continue creating new varieties without taking this disease into account. Our challenge is to find varieties that are more resistant or tolerant to the disease," Rubio said.
"In Italy some crosses have resisted and survived PSA, and so we want to see if there's a chance of us bringing that material over here," Jorquera said.
Jorquera also highlighted this project itself would not generate a new variety, but rather would form a base from which a new variety could later enter the market.
"To get a new variety out you have to create a model for the selection," she said.
"We are just getting started now, and we have the support of the entire industry. We don't want to be like New Zealand but we do want varieties, a Chilean kiwifruit variety with a good post-harvest life and higher resistance to PSA.
"We essentially want an alternative to what's already out there."
As well as material from Italy, Chilean researchers are also hoping to soon be able to import genetic material from China.