How The Cosmic Crisp Is Taking On America’s Favorite Apples

How The Cosmic Crisp Is Taking On America’s Favorite Apples

February 27, 2020 100 By William Morgan


This was the biggest apple
launch of all time. The new iPhone 11
is simply amazing. Hold on. No, not
that kind of apple. This kind of apple. This is a new variety of apple. The Cosmic Crisp. It’s the largest launch of
a single variety ever. It’s the child of the blockbuster
Honeycrisp apple and the Enterprise apple. In the U.S., apples are a five billion
dollar a year industry. There are more than 7,500 varieties
of apples grown across the world in 2,500 of those are
grown in the U.S. like the Pink Lady, the
Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, the Honeycrisp and America’s favorite, the Gala,
which just beat out the Red Delicious variety for
the first time ever. Red Delicious had reigned more than
half a century before the Gala apple dethroned it. And yet, scientists are
still developing new varieties. Actually, it’s not just apples. There are plant breeders, horticulturalists
and scientists around the world working to perfect and
reinvent the food everyone knows. Whether it be apples or berries,
mushrooms or crops like rice and wheat. And this innovation isn’t
just the controversial GMO kind. That’s short for
genetically modified organism. In fact, crops have been cross-bred
to produce new varieties for hundreds of years. Plants naturally cross-pollinate, which
produces new varieties. Here in the U.S. are breeding
programs like the one at Washington State University that is responsible for
the more than 20 years of work it took to create and
grow the Cosmic Crisp apple through natural means. Here’s how we invent
new foods like the Cosmic Crisp. The first masters of biotechnology date
back to more than 12,000 years ago to the Neolithic period
of the Stone Age, where the adoption of farming and agriculture
first began to develop. It was then that humans isolated
elite selections of crops and mass planted them to domesticate certain
crops, and this happened independently in different regions all over
the world with all sorts of plants. But the modern apple we
know today can be traced back to Kazakhstan during the Bronze Age
and to bear droppings. For millions of years, bears chose
to eat the larger, sweet variety over the smaller, bitter apples. Then through bear droppings that contain
those apple seeds, a process called germination, more fruit trees grew
to grow that larger sweet apple we know today. By the first millennium BCE, apples
had become part of Western agriculture. The ancient way of doing
it was simply planting seeds and you’d get variation. Fast forward a few thousand years
to colonial America in the late 1700s, nearly 100 years after the
apple was imported by immigrants, pioneers were encouraged
to plant apples. In 1806, Jonathon Chapman, well, you
might know him as Johnny Appleseed, distributed apple seeds from
western Pennsylvania to West Virginia. And this helped America’s apple
crop flourish in new parts of the country. When an apple seed
is planted, it doesn’t just grow into the same variety of apple of
the seed it was grown from. It entirely depends on pollination. Each plant inherits half of its DNA
from the tree the apple came from and half from the tree
the pollen came from. So when new apple seeds were
planted throughout the country, being pollinated by who knows what, thousands
of new varieties hit the market. If you planted a seed from
a Cosmic Crisp apple, you wouldn’t get a Cosmic Crisp tree. You would get a tree that was,
had inherited 50 percent of its genes from Cosmic Crisp, but fifty percent
from whatever pollen parent had actually pollenize the flower that
then made that fruit. In 1905, f ruit growers
evaluated 100,000 clones from literally hundreds of thousands
of apple selections. In this screening of the open
pollinated chance seedlings resulted in varieties we still see today,
like the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and the McIntosh. This starts with understanding that the tree
you see in an orchard is a composite tree made up from two
parts, the rootstock and the scion. That means it’s made up
of two different varieties. It has the top part
that has the fruit. That’s the scion variety. And then the bottom
part is the rootstock. You can have, for example, a rootstock
that makes a huge big tree and whatever scion variety you would bud or
graft on top of that, it will grow into a really big tree. Grafting is a process where plant
material from one variety is fused to another and then
together the plant grows. And this technique dates back
thousands of years too. It’s even mentioned in the bible. Grafting, you’ll take a
bit of scion stick. Okay, technical term, but it’s
got several buds on it. You’ll cut the bottom perhaps into a
V and you’ll cut a similar kind of shape on top
of the rootstock chute. You literally can just push the two
together, bind them, so that they hold. And then the vascular tissues
will fuse, and that means that you get this new tree growing
up out of the grafted wood. This technique is also
known as clonal propagation. That’s when scientists make identical
genetic copies of a plant. The Cosmic Crisp was made by
classical breeding, which is also known as hybridization. Evans is part of
the breeding program at Washington State University that developed
the Cosmic Crisp. Fundamentally, you’re taking pollen from one
of the apple trees in our case and then using that pollen
to pollenize flowers of the other parent. Simple process. It’s just controlled pollination, so
it’s using a process that’s happening out there all the time
with bees or other visiting insects. But the pollen that’s used on
to the flowers is random. With ours, we’re using this pollen
from a specific male parent that we’ve chosen to give us that
greater potential of having offspring with the characteristics that
we’re looking for. From their plant breeders germinate
and evaluate thousands of seeds that came out of
the hybridization process. One of the Cosmic Crisp’s
parents is the Honeycrisp apple. Honeycrisp has got this ultra-crisp
texture that really hadn’t been seen very much until
Honeycrisp hit the market. And for some reason, Honeycrisp caught
the fancy of America and it changed the whole apple industry because
they found out that people liked it so much they’d pay two
times a Honeycrisp than for regular apples. The other parent apple is
an Enterprise, and if you haven’t heard of that one, it’s because
it’s mainly grown and sold in Indiana. This is Jules Janick. He’s a horticulturalist and professor
at Purdue University in Indiana. You can probably call him
the grandfather of the Enterprise apple. We developed
the Enterprise apple. Kate Evans made many crosses and one
of the crosses she made was crossing Enterprise, which is a
big, red apple, attractive, scab-resistant to Honeycrisp. As breeders
make crosses, each genetic mashup between two parents generates
a unique offspring every time. It’s kind of like how siblings share
DNA from the same two parents, but have different characteristics. And that’s because you’ve inherited
that maternal and paternal DNA. But it segregates, it all mixes up. So what we’re using is breeders were
using that technique to get that mixing up off of genes to then enable
us to be able to choose the best individual. The process of identifying a great
variety of apple takes years. It takes two or three years
to really grow a tree. So they keep replanting it and testing
it to make sure it’s as good as they think it is. The Washington State University breeders
were looking for an apple that would appeal to both
consumers and to growers. So, for example, when it came
to ultimately choosing the variety that became the Cosmic Crisp, its tastiness
and storability were at the forefront. It’s slow to brown, so you
throw your lemon trick out the window. It’s just so
natural slow to brown. To test this, we left out two
apples overnight and here’s what they looked like after 16 hours. A lot of people ask us all must
be a Frankenstein apple or is it GMO, and no, it’s not. A GMO is a
genetically modified organism. It’s a plant or animal that
has been altered by genetic engineering, which is a manipulation of an
organism’s genes by either introducing, eliminating or rearranging specific genes
using methods of modern molecular biology, or at least that’s
how it’s thought of in countries like the United States. Technically, something that has been
genetically modified can be done through traditional methods too,
like selective breeding. However, the GMO technology that’s
often referred to today originated in 1973. Scientist Herbert Boyer and Stanley
Cohen engineered the first successful organism by cutting out a
gene from one organism and pasting it into another. This technique is known
as gene transfer. However, the first food genetic modification
tests were in 1987, and from years of testing later, Calgene’s
Flavr Savr tomato hit shelves as the first food crop to
be approved for commercial production by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The tomato stays riper longer
than the non-engineered variety, and they say it’s tastier. These tomatoes were modified to be
firmer, thus extending the shelf life. And now that the FDA
has pronounced them safe, they’ll be shipped.. But getting consumers on board
with a crop that had new genes proved difficult. Still, just the thought of juggling tomato
genes in a lab scares some people. When the Flavr Savr first hit
the market in 1994, d emand was high, but by 1998, sales sharply
dropped off as public perception changed and the Flavr Savr tomato
was never profitable because of high production and
distribution costs. According to The Non-GMO Project,
there’s no scientific consensus on the safety of GMO. Even Chipotle has indicated on their
menus that their food is non-GMO, as part of their
“food with integrity” mission. And they were the first restaurant
chain to do so in 2013. But those in favor of the technology
say it allows scientists to make food more aesthetically pleasing, easier
to cultivate, and even can make food more nutritious. Unfortunately, people are
afraid of GMO. People are afraid. It’s just a fear
that some crazy gene and they don’t want any in their mouth
that has been controlled by genetics. It’s an irrational fear and I might
say grafting at the same thing in the 19th century, people were afraid
of grafting, they though it wasn’t natural. So the question
is, what’s natural and what’s unnatural. New innovations now allow
scientists to edit genomes, a living organism’s entire
genetic code. Then there’s CRISPR-Cas9, which is
short for clustered regularly interspersed short
palindromic repeats. The way it works is kind of like
having a document on a computer and using the find tool to locate a
specific word and then adjust that word. CRISPR enables you to change
some of those sequences to mimic many other natural variations. So in a fruit or vegetable
with conventional breeding, you know, you have a mother and a father and
the children are always a combination, but what happens if you could actually
just change one of the traits and not have to go through
all the changing of everything? CRISPR has seen its ethical
challenges, particularly when it’s used in human science. In November 2018, a Chinese scientist
said that he used the gene editing technology on twin girls
to protect them from getting infected with the AIDS virus. CRISPR was used on embryos, disabling
a particular gene that allows HIV to enter a cell. But the approach restricted
in the U.S. and much of Europe
drew an international outcry. China sentenced him to
three years in prison. Scientists are using CRISPR on the
food we eat, like to keep mushrooms from browning or to make
oranges resistant to the greening disease that is killing citrus
plants around the world. One startup, Pairwise, is currently
using CRISPR to grow cherries without a pit and to
extend their growing season. These natural breeding process take
a long, long time. The one example I can give
is think about seedless grapes. That’s a natural genetic variation. Well, we’re working on using that
same information to derived from those grapes and create a
cherry without a pit. What pairwise is doing is essentially
speeding up what they say would happen naturally anyway. It would just take years
to happen in the wild. And it’s generally mimicking something
that’s already been naturally done. We’re only working on things
that could be done through breeding, but could be much faster. Apples are 2.5 billion dollar a year business in
Washington, which grows about 60 percent of the nation’s supply
or nearly 140 million boxes. But these growers can’t just
grow any ol’ apple. Turns out, many
apples have patents. New varieties are trademarked, patented
and marketed like any other brand. Some of these
apples are club apples. Growers are paying somewhere around
sixty three thousand dollars an acre to plant a branded variety. Any branded of variety, any apple. Owning the intellectual property rights to
a certain kind of apple started in the mid 20th century
when the first varieties were patented as a way to compensate growers
who spent time and money to develop them. Most breeders would patent
their apple varieties in the U.S. The Cosmic Crisp is a new
club apple, and it’s managed by Proprietary Variety Management, where Grandy
is the director of marketing. We are trademarked in
probably over a hundred countries and we have a few partners
internationally so that they can protect the trademarks. And so the patent
for this particular apple is under its name, W-A 38. Washington State University
owns that patent. Washington State has a 10-year exclusive
deal to grow the Cosmic Crisp, and that’s because the
University of Washington collaborated with growers in the state. Growers then have a license to produce
the WA-38 trees, and then that license enables them to sell their
fruit under the Cosmic Crisp brand. The license actually comes
through when they purchase the trees through the nursery. Most growers will still purchase trees,
so the nursery will produce finished trees. For growers, it can be
a huge investment to take on growing a new variety. For a grower to make that investment,
t hey’ve got to be fairly confident that it’s the direction
they want to go in. Why the growers do it? Growers do it because
fundamentally they’re in business. Some argue that the future of
plant breeding lies in CRISPR technology. CRISPR technology, gene-editing, is something
that we use to change an individual gene and that is
the plant breeding of the future. Baker says growers have a
reason to stay excited. Growers are generally excited about
any technology that helps make farming easier. Just like consumers
are generally excited about anything that makes
healthy food easier. We’re working on making fruits
and vegetables more convenient, more available and more affordable. Regardless of whether the fruit was
modified in a lab or hybridized in a breeding program, many say there
is space in the produce section for new products. And new produce means higher price
tags and higher price tags can mean a better profit for growers. Growers obviously are interested in growing
a new product where they hope to be able to get
a better return on their investment.