The genome mapping of the wild strawberry will speed — not replace — conventional breeding programs, researchers who worked on the project say.

“We had people come up to us at the Florida Strawberry Festival and say, ‘What’s up with the genetically modified strawberries?’” said Kevin Folta, co-author of a paper on the subject in Nature Genetics. “There’s been a lot of misunderstanding in the (agriculture) industry that genome sequencing means strawberries are genetically modified, but that’s not the case at all.”

The findings in the paper — “The Genome of Woodland Strawberry” — were announced at January’s Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, among other events.

As it turns out, the strawberry bears a striking resemblance to the previously mapped peach and apple genomes, said Folta, an associate professor in horticultural sciences at the University of Florida.

“There may be just a handful of genes that make strawberries what they are,” he said. “That’s helpful. Once you know how their parts differ, it allows you to focus efforts to control the traits important to consumers. So maybe even in a couple years you’ll see results as far as improved varieties.”

Breeders have always tried to match desirable traits like color, sweetness, size and disease resistance. But having the sequence on the native berry will save time, said U.S. Department of Agriculture molecular biologist Janet Slovin.

“Instead of having to plant out thousands of seeds and look for the ones we want, we can do this at a molecular level when they’re little seedlings,” said Slovin, another co-author. “You’re saving yourself an entire season. You’d save a lot of acreage, and only plant out the seeds that have the genes you’re interested in.”

The woodland strawberry is genetically simpler than commercial fruit, with two chromosomes instead of eight. But the findings are relevant to a number of issues growers face, researchers say — including how to keep production high after methyl bromide, a fumigant under international sanctions, passes from the scene.

“The thing we’re going to be able to conquer first is disease resistance,” Slovin said. “Methyl bromide is providing a real incentive to produce disease-resistant varieties.”

Organics, for one, would stand to benefit.

Other commercial benefits could be reaped by breeding programs themselves, Slovin said.

“It will allow breeders to have a label for the fruit they produce,” she said. “We can use these molecular markers to identify germ plasms. If everybody’s growing your variety and you’re not getting royalties, there’s no incentive.”

“We’re just starting to tag genes and look for different functions,” said Vance Whitaker, a strawberry breeder and assistant professor at the University of Florida. “Then we can follow those genes through the breeding process. It won’t produce a product tomorrow, but in time it might produce a better strawberry. We’ll be doing less selection in the field and more in the laboratory.”