Modern apples bigger and less acidic than their wild ancestors – study

The fruit is one of the most heavily produced crops in the world.

Nina Massey
Wednesday 23 March 2022 18:00
Modern apples are bigger and less acidic than their wild ancestors, a study found (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Modern apples are bigger and less acidic than their wild ancestors, a study found (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Modern apples are bigger, less acidic, less bitter and store better than their wild ancestors, new research suggests.

The fruit is one of the most heavily produced crops in the world and its cultivation dates back at least 7,000 years, experts say.

Researchers set out to look at how apples have evolved and how apples from long ago compare to modern-day varieties.

Using historical records, we found that apple breeding over the past 200 years has resulted in a trend towards apples that have higher soluble solids, are less bitter, and soften less during storage

Study authors

They examined 10 apple phenotypes – or traits – to assess how the fruit has changed during domestication and breeding.

The study found that cultivated apples were 3.6 times heavier, about half as acidic and far less bitter than the wild ancestral species from which modern apples are derived.

Using historical records, Sean Myles, an associate professor at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Canada, and his team also determined that apple breeding over the past 200 years has resulted in a trend towards apples that soften less during storage.

Writing in the PLoS ONE journal, the authors said: “Using historical records, we found that apple breeding over the past 200 years has resulted in a trend towards apples that have higher soluble solids, are less bitter, and soften less during storage.

“Our results quantify the significant changes in phenotype that have taken place since apple domestication, and provide evidence that apple breeding has led to continued phenotypic divergence of the cultivated apple from its wild progenitor species.”

They add: “Our work demonstrates that cultivated and wild apples have diverged phenotypically, and that hundreds of years of apple improvement have shaped the variation in fruit and phenology we observe among cultivated apples today.

“Wild apples offer potentially valuable pools of genetic material that may be helpful for apple improvement.”

The researchers drew from Canada’s Apple Biodiversity Collection, an orchard that contains more than 1,000 different apple varieties, like Gala and Honeycrisp, but also ancient heirloom varieties and wild apples from the forests of Kazakhstan.

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