In our Breeder Spotlight Series, we interview blueberry and cranberry breeders to learn more about their roles, challenges in their breeding programs, and have them highlight some of their favorite new cultivars. In this spotlight, we spoke to Dr. Ebrahiem Babiker, a Research Plant Geneticist at USDA-ARS Thad Cochran Southern Horticultural Laboratory.

Dr. Ebrahiem Babiker

Please describe your role in the blueberry industry.

My expertise is in plant breeding and genetics and the application of molecular tools to speed up the breeding cycle. Blueberry consumption has increased markedly in the past few decades and, as a result, demand for high quality berries has also increased. Developing adapted southern highbush cultivars with improved berry qualities necessitates evaluation of a large and diverse germplasm collections in replicated field trials across years for different traits. 

Since I joined the USDA-ARS Southern Horticultural laboratory in 2016, I have been involved in research projects aimed at improving the blueberry breeding procedures through utilizing the advances in molecular genetics and high throughput phenotyping to accelerate the breeding process. 

Cultivar Highlight - Please tell us about some top cultivars you’re excited about and why you chose them.

‘USDA-Spiers’ is an early rabbiteye cultivar that produces an abundance of medium to large attractive and firm berries. It is a new public domain that was released in 2022 by the USDA-ARS for the USDA hardiness zones 8a thru 9a. Mature ‘USDA-Spiers’ bushes are moderately spreading with narrow crowns, and compared to most rabbiteye blueberry cultivars, require little pruning to manage excessive vegetative growth.

What are some challenges in the breeding program? 

Heterozygosity, polyploidy, and genome complexity, impede progress in improving valuable traits through conventional breeding methods. Further, most of the fruit quality traits are under polygenic control displaying a continuous phenotypic expression, moderate heritability values, and are subject to significant genotype × environment interaction, making breeding for fruit quality traits a difficult task. In addition, manual phenotyping.

Where do you see the future of Vaccinium breeding going in the next 20 years?

We will continue to deliver elite, region-specific blueberry cultivars and conduct genomics studies to understand the genetic architecture of complex traits via genome-wide association studies, quantitative trait loci mapping, and genomic selection. Markers developed through these activities will be utilized to screen seedling populations at an early stage and discard significant portions of hybrids that do not have the desired combinations of alleles.

Also, we have developed numerous analytical techniques to assess different fruits quality traits. These techniques will greatly enhance the blueberry breeding efficiency and help breeders in selecting superior genotypes for crosses and further testing. 

In what way have you used resources from VacCAP to facilitate your work?

In collaboration with VacCAP, we will use the VacCAP genotyping platform to investigate the genetic diversity, population structure and locate genomic regions associated with key traits in a diverse panel. The panel contain 58 released southern highbush cultivars from blueberry breeding programs in Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina and 136 breeding selections from the USDA-ARS blueberry breeding program.