LAS VEGAS — The fresh produce industry of tomorrow might be found under the microscopes of today, two researchers told a workshop at the United Fresh 2009 conference.

DNA-informed breeding will be more productive than genetic engineering for tree fruit, said Cameron Peace, a member of the horticulture and landscape architecture department at Washington State University, Pullman.

“Many resources have been diverted from breeding to genetics with little return,” he said.

Peace suggested a superior approach is to determine the DNA of a commodity’s positive traits and breed those traits into new varieties. The goal, he said, is to produce delicious, consistent fruit.

Once the genes that control the traits are identified, new varieties can be developed as quickly or quicker than through genetic engineering, Peace said.

“Genetic modification really doesn’t save time,” he said.

DNA-informed breeding will be able to determine whether seedlings contain the positive traits desired in future varieties, and it won’t be necessary to grow seedlings to productive maturity, Peace said.

“DNA breeding will take the guesswork out of the tree fruit industry,” he said.

Peace’s research focuses on finding the genes that produce the positive traits. Only about six positive trait genes have been identified, he said. At the same time, he admitted not all researchers have embraced DNA breeding.

“There’s a chasm between genetic engineering and DNA-informed breeding,” he said. “Closer partnerships among the industry, DNA breeding and genetic engineering would produce a win, win, win situation.”

Nanotechnology could prove to be a boon to food safety for fresh produce, said Luis Cisneros-Zevallos, a member of the faculty in the department of horticulture sciences at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. But application of the technology is years away, he said.

Among the hurdles in ridding fresh produce of pathogens, Cisneros-Zevallos said, is the wide variety of surfaces on the skins and rinds of produce. In rougher surfaces such as cantaloupes, the surface tension of water creates micro air pockets and prevents pathogen-fighting chemicals from getting into minute crevices where the pathogens may be found, he said.

It may be possible through nanotechnology to minimize the size of liquid molecules to nano-droplets that can make their way to the hidden pathogens, Cisneros-Zevallos said.

“Nanotechnology science is still in its infancy. There is no real application yet,” he said.

He sees many opportunities in the future, particularly for post-harvest. The applications may not be limited to eradicating surface pathogens.

Nanotechnology may be used to improve the packaging of fresh produce, Cisneros-Zevallos said, to serve as a better barrier to oxygen. It might possible, he said, to develop pathogen detecting films that contain embedded sensors that would change the color of the film.