Looking to the past for disease resistance

Fireblight on apples
Fireblight on apples

Traditionally, farmers have bred their crops so that, in several generations, they have a variety that has a high yield or a particular taste or texture. These days, many farmers don’t breed their own crops but buy varieties that have been specially developed to perform well. However, it turns out that sometimes it is best to rediscover old varieties that naturally already have desirable traits.

Researchers at the Swiss research centre, Agroscope, were commissioned by the Fructus Association to look at the properties of apple varieties that are no longer widely grown. This is part of the NAP-PGREL project, which aims to record the properties of approximately 300 fruit varieties a year and make this information available to fruit growers.

Alant apples © Agroscope

After investigating the molecular profiles, tree characteristics and disease susceptibility of more than 200 apple and pear varieties, they found that one type of apple, called ‘Alant’, is particularly resistant to fireblight, a disease caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora. It was a lucky find as the last “wild” Alant tree was toppled by a storm a few years ago, and during a five-year inventory of Swiss varieties, only a single Alant tree was found. This variety is now being conserved in fruit tree collections. In addition to its disease resistance, the Alant apple is a good cider and eating apple, making it an attractive variety to introduce to orchards.

Cross-breeding with other varieties has already begun to test how well the fireblight-resistance traits are passed on to the next generation. This could mean the revival of a variety of apple that all but disappeared. Perhaps this finding will encourage other crop breeders to investigate rare crop varieties in the search for pest and disease resistance.


Agroscope (2012) Alant – alte Apfelsorte trotzt Feuerbrand. Available from: http://www.agroscope.admin.ch/aktuell/00198/05299/05494/index.html?lang=de&msg-id=46765

FreshPlaza (2012) Switzerland: Alant – old apple variety resistant to blight. Available from: http://www.freshplaza.com/news_detail.asp?id=103460

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