Kazakhstan's Eden of Apples May Also Be Their Salvation
Scientist Sees a Stock That May Yield Hybrids Largely Resistant to Disease
By STEVE LEVINE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Driving a sport-utility vehicle on a dirt road, Aimak Jangaliyev notes the Tien Shen Mountains surrounding him. "These are Adam's gardens," he says with a wave. Then he suddenly halts. "Look there! There they are!"
The 89-year-old scientist points to some trees. Unremarkable in appearance, they are anything but. Thousands of years ago, scientists say, the first apples as we know them today appeared in the Tien Shen, and these are their descendants.
The survival of the original apple is not a mere historical footnote. Mr. Jangaliyev is one of the many leading experts who believe that Kazakhstan's primeval forests may one day help to save the $50 billion-a-year global apple industry.
For those who don't know that the apple industry is in need of Kazakh assistance, the problem goes back some 6,000 years. That's when fruit naturally similar in quality to store-bought American varieties appeared around present-day Almaty, which means "Father of Apples" in the Kazakh language. Travelers passing through spread the fruit east and west, thus making apples a popular fruit. But the proliferation ultimately wreaked genetic havoc. Today, about 90% of the apples eaten around the world are the ultimate offspring of just two parent trees, scientists say, producing a gene pool so shallow that awful apple scourges have resulted: apple scab, cedar apple rust and fireblight, not to mention powdery mildew. Factor in bad weather and increased competition from China, and the U.S. apple industry has lost $1.7 billion in the past seven years, says James Cranney Jr. of the U.S. Apple Association. U.S. apple growers, he says, are "in a recession, if not a depression."
Apple diseases are a rarity in the never-cultivated trees of the Tien Shen, where a plethora of apple genes developed over several thousand years of isolation from the rest of the world's apples. Today, experts are looking for apple salvation in the forests here, which are vigorously defended by Mr. Jangaliyev, Kazakhstan's pre-eminent apple expert. "This is a unique resource for the planet," says Herb Aldwinckle, an apple expert at Cornell University, the main U.S. repository of apple knowledge. "We have found that the native apples of Kazakhstan have a wealth of disease resistance," he says.
Mr. Jangaliyev was raised an orphan here after his father died and Soviet authorities exiled his mother to Russia. He became interested in apples in the 1930s, when a college genetics professor sent him to study the mountain forests. When Stalinist repression and famine struck, the professor dispatched him to safety in a Moscow scientific institute, where in 1941 he defended a doctoral dissertation on the diversity of Kazakhstan apple genes. Back in Almaty after fighting in Europe alongside U.S. allies in World War II, he studied apple genes in relative obscurity. Like the rest of the Soviet Union, Almaty was largely shut off from the rest of world.
All that changed in 1989. That's when Mr. Aldwinckle, the Cornell professor, wangled a rare visa to Kazakhstan. Mr. Jangaliyev met him at Almaty Airport and, a few get-acquainted vodka shots later, the two men were off on a four-week apple connoisseur's tour. Mr. Jangaliyev showed his first Western visitor thousands of acres of wild apple forests that are home to Malus Sieversii, the apple variety that scientists say is the forefather of most apples eaten around the world.
What they didn't see was much disease, even though none of the trees appeared ever to have been treated with chemicals. What they did see were apples that "closely resembled what we buy in the market," says Mr. Aldwinckle.
When Mr. Aldwinckle returned to Cornell with Kazakh stems and seeds, he triggered a world-wide sensation. Hearing of the trip, German apple experts complaining about apple scab and apple rust asked whether they, too, could test Mr. Jangaliyev's apple genes. South Africans wanted to know whether the genes might spell an end to wooly apple aphids. The U.S. Agricultural Research Service, which sponsors some Cornell apple research, organized a string of follow-up tours. "It was the experience of my life," says Taaibos Human, a South African breeder who went in 1995.
The interest stemmed from how most staple fruits and vegetables spread over history, originating in one place -- radishes in China, for instance, and cranberries in North America. Scientists believe that by going to a fruit's place of origin, they can find genes that developed over the intervening centuries, and from them they can produce super-resistant hybrids.
In the case of apples, among the places they reached after leaving Kazakhstan was America, ultimately producing the Red Delicious and Golden Delicious varieties, which are the parents of about 90% of the apple hybrids people eat, scientists say. The Red Delicious was hybridized into the Fuji and the Empire, and the Golden Delicious into the Gala, the Jonagold, the Mutsu, the Pink Lady and the Elstar, says James Luby, an expert at the University of Minnesota.
Varieties may be tastier than Delicious, but inbreeding has promoted diseases that have become ever harder to contend with. Growers cater to consumers put off by the slightest imperfection, so U.S. farmers spray their apples against pests and disease about 10 times a year, on average. South African growers spray up to 50 times annually. With many health-conscious consumers demanding unsprayed fruit, growers have sought ways to prevent disease that don't involve pesticides.
Scientists see Kazakh apple genes as a way to produce disease-resistant apples that don't need nearly as much spraying. A new hybrid wouldn't suffer the fate of today's apples anytime soon, scientists believe, because it would have Kazakhstan's time-ripened disease protection. But pulling that off will be harder than it sounds. Scientists say they'll need 25 years or more to produce a successful new variety. That's how long it takes to grow and test a hybrid before going to market.
The pace of the work makes Mr. Jangaliyev impatient. "Mount your horses," he says, ordering passengers into his SUV for a tour of laboratories and breeding farms he supervises.
Mr. Jangaliyev's current preoccupation is safeguarding the forest as a natural incubator of newer genes resistant even to currently unknown apple diseases.
Soviet authorities cleared most of the apple forest that once choked Almaty and, since the 1991 Soviet breakup, Kazakhstan's oil wealth has spawned more forest-clearing for luxury cabins. The result is that the forest has shrunk to about 10,000 acres today from about 125,000 acres in the 1940s, according to the United Nations. That especially angers Mr. Jangaliyev, who spies a clear-cut hilltop where someone has built a house. "Why on earth does he need a villa?" he asks.
He has little tolerance for people who don't cherish the forest. "Nothing," he says, "is more valuable than a gene."
Quest for Better Apples Bears Fruit for U.S. Botanists
Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
October 30, 2001
Philip Forsline has tasted every one of the 2,500 varieties of apples that grow in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's apple collection in Geneva, New York. He eats at least three apples a day. And every few years he roams the forests of Kazakhstan, which have an endless variety of wild apple trees, plucking and tasting every new type he finds.
Forsline isn't trying to break the world record for apple eating. He's the curator of America's apple collection and is scouring the world's forests for new varieties of apple trees. Forsline's ultimate goal is to improve the commercial apple.
Giant Apple Cart
The United States has assembled a core collection of 2,500 apple varieties, but botanists are investigating many other varieties in Kazakhstan and other countries to find apples with traits such as resistance to pests, disease, and extreme temperatures.
Since the days of Johnny Appleseed—the American pioneer who planted apple trees throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—the number of apple varieties in the United States has shrunk significantly.
The varieties that do exist are highly susceptible to disease, says Forsline. In the United States, commercial apples require more applications of pesticide than any other crop.
During his journeys, Forsline is looking for wild varieties of apples with certain traits—such as resistance to cold, drought, insects, and disease—that could be bred with commercial varieties to produce tastier, more robust fruit.
Birthplace of Apples?
Forsline's quest takes him to the remote forests of Kazakhstan, where, botanists believe, the first apple trees took root. As he wanders, he collects seeds and twigs from wild apple trees that he will grow in the orchard in Geneva, New York.
Some seeds are stored in a freezer that serves as a gene bank for apples. The seed bank now contains more than 1,500 "seed lots" from thousands of wild apple trees. It contains potentially another 200,000 trees, says Forsline.
"By going to Kazakhstan, we feel like we are collecting diverse [genetic material] from the entire range of species—the entire gene pool," said Forsline. "We felt we were bringing back all of the genes, not just those that were selected over time" for their sweetness, color, or crunch, he added.
Traveling by helicopter, Forsline and his colleagues go to a remote area called Alma Ata—which means "father of the apple"—nearly 200 miles from the capital city. Alma Ata (now Almaty) is the apple's Garden of Eden.
The forests have conifers, spruce, juniper, and honeysuckle, but apple trees are generally the most dominant, said Forsline.
"You see these trees just loaded with apples, many different types of apples," said Forsline. Some are the size of small pumpkins, others barely larger than marbles or peas. The colors range from pale yellow to lime green to burgundy to rich cocoa brown.
Taste is another matter. Wild varieties of apple have a wide range of flavors, but most are unappetizing "spitters," said Forsline. Some wild apples have a stringent bitter taste, others are so dry they seem to draw extract water out of the tongue. A few are aromatic and sweet.
"The most unusual apple tasted like something between a banana and a hazelnut," said Forsline. "It was a unique taste—quite good in the beginning, and in the end it had an aftertaste that was not real pleasant." In one forest, Forsline was surprised to find wild apples that were almost of commercial quality.
Forsline has collected apple seeds and twigs from environments ranging from deserts to rain forests throughout central Asia, including in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The purpose is to sample each species of apple.
"Apples develop their genetic traits based on the environments in which they have evolved," said Forsline.
If an apple tree grows in a desert area, for instance, its fruit may have traits such as drought resistance. In far northern areas, where temperatures can plummet to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius), the trees have probably developed genes that offer protection against coldness. Apple trees in very wet sites are vulnerable to many diseases and have probably developed different kinds of resistance.
Of the 2,500 apple tree varieties in the USDA's Plant Genetic Resources Unit, about 200 are considered the "core collection." These core varieties are also grown at sites in North Carolina, Illinois, and Minnesota to learn how the various trees fare in different environments.
Forsline hopes that within the next few years, many breeders will be able to combine Kazakhstan apples that have desirable traits such as unusual hardiness with high-quality apple varieties.
"I would hope that within 10 to 15 years, the market would see some apples that have some of the Kazakhstan [apple] genes in them," he said. "That's an optimistic approach."
If you ask Phil Forsline what his favorite apple is, he'll tell you he has four.
"It all depends on what mood I'm in," he says.
When he wants pure apple flavor, he grabs a Jonagold. For most occasions, though, he'll reach for an Empire -- which he can usually eat two at a time because they're "satisfying, but not satiating."
When he wants to sit around in the evening and crunch for a while, he likes the Mutsu, also called Crispin.
"It's a big apple."
And finally, when the winter months are dragging on, and all the other apples are getting old, he chooses Fuji.
Forsline should know. He is a horticulturist for the USDA Agriculture Research Service and curator of the apple and sour cherry collections of the Plant Genetic Resources Unit (PGRU) at Cornell's Geneva Campus. In charge of its 2,500 different apple varieties which are planted on 50 acres of land, he's tasted the fruit of every one.
But Forsline said he is concerned by losses of genetic diversity in commercial apple varieties. Today's most common grocery store varieties -- Gala, Jonagold, Fuji, Red and Golden Delicious and others -- can trace their ancestry back to only a few parents, and that is a problem, according to Forsline.
"It's a challenge to grow [apples]. They require a lot of pesticides to give good [fruit]," he said.
"The problems start in orchards with disease and pests and then continues into storage. Apples have a shallow gene pool that just doesn't have the depth to combat these problems," said Jim Luby, Professor of Pomology and Plant Breeding at the University of Minnesota, who has collaborated with Forsline on a number of projects.
Apple trees must be reproduced through grafting, an asexual process, to maintain their favorable characteristics. However, their pathogens and pests are under no such constraint, and readily swap genes through sexual recombination. This results in more and more well-adapted pests, and apple trees that are increasingly vulnerable, according to Forsline and his colleagues.
As a result, unsprayed apples are rarely blemish-free and are frequently riddled with the signs of insect, fungal, and bacterial guests. The only way to produce the picture perfect apples found in the grocery store is through the extensive use of pesticides.
"I never plant eating apples in my yard," says Forsline, "because I don't want pesticides around the house."
But Forsline and other scientists at Geneva are working to help alleviate these problems with the help of trees which, unlike domestic trees, have not had their genes subject to selection by human cultivation for 6,000 years. Presumably, these trees preserve all of the apples' genetic diversity. They are found in the apple's homeland -- the Tien Shan mountains of Kazakhstan -- to which these scientists went.
The "All-Central Asian" Fruit
It had been known since the early 20th Century that Kazakhstan was the likely source of the main genetic constituent of our domestic apple, the wild Malus sieversii. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 afforded American scientists their first opportunity to investigate the apples found there, according to Herb Aldwinckle, a scientist in the Plant Pathology Department at Geneva, and one of the first to visit Kazakhstan in that year.
"It was hard to get the authorities to agree to let us collect there.
frustrations were the biggest problem," said Aldwinckle.
Aldwinckle, Forsline, Luby and others have traveled around Kazakhstan by helicopter (and in later trips by bus -- the authorities claimed there was no fuel for the helicopters) collecting cuttings and seeds to take back to the United States. There have been four such trips since the area was opened to U.S. scientists in 1989.
Apples grow wild in the forests of Kazakhstan. In his book, The Botany of Desire, apple expert Michael Pollan describes how the Silk Road passed through this region, and travelers likely carried apples with them westward, spreading them into the mideast, the Roman Empire, and Europe. These trees in turn hybridized with other apple species found along the way, were cultivated by Romans and others, and gradually assumed their modern form.
Because the apple is native to Eurasia and not North America, Forsline has suggested that the "... quintessential 'All-American' fruit should more aptly be called the 'All-Central Asian' fruit."
Immigrants to the United States brought cuttings of European varieties with them, but these were usually maladapted to the harsher North American climate, and rapidly died. Only trees planted from seed, called "pippins", could survive. The fruits of these trees were by and large 'spitters' (apples too sour or bitter to be consumed). They were good only for cider -- a hard drink by nature in those days, since refrigeration was a century or so away. However, chance seedling would occasionally produce fruit that was tasty enough to eat. And thus originated McIntosh and Delicious, Northern Spy and Newtown Pippin, and a whole host of apples uniquely adapted to the American environment, according to Pollan's book.
Over time, however, popular taste has narrowed the array of apple trees commercially grown to the descendants of only a few varieties: Jonathan, McIntosh, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Cox's Orange Pippin.
"Ninety percent of the apples grown in the world have six parents, and two of those are the parents of the others," said Luby.
Further, apples can only be propagated by cuttings if their favorable characteristics are to be preserved and not lost to genetic recombination in the next generation. This is called grafting, and it involves taking a cutting from the desired fruiting tree and splicing it with a hardy rootstock. Now, after generations of this practice and the decrease in the number of grown varieties, commercial apples' genetic diversity has dwindled, leaving them open to the predations of insects and pathogens.
But in Kazakhstan, none of this has taken place. Apples as small as grapes and as large as familiar eating apples are found there in a wide range of colors and flavors, though by and large they are 'spitters'. Many of these trees show strong resistance to disease, cold hardiness, favorable growth patterns or promising rootstock characteristics, according to Forsline.
"Some of the Kazakhstan apples are very close to commercial quality [in terms of fruit]," as well, Luby added.
In the course of their travels, the scientists have run into their share of mishaps. "On a bus ride in '95 the bus broke down in the desert for seven hours. I thought maybe it was more fortunate we had the bus instead of the helicopter -- I'd rather have the bus break down," remarked Forsline.
On another occasion, Aldwinckle and Forsline were together in China when they came upon a troupe of monkeys. "We thought they were cute until they attacked us [for our apples]," remembered Aldwinckle. How did they get out of that situation? "We let them have the apples."
And finally, Luby recalls the great hospitality of their hosts.
"One of the traditions they have is to give very long toasts with vodka. Everyone is expected to give a toast over the course of the evening, and when they're done, bottoms up," Luby recounted. With 15 to 20 guests at each dinner, this added up.
"[Forsline] and I figured out how to get water into our glasses because we could not possibly keep up. But one night we came over and all the water had been colored red."
Seeds, pollen, cuttings, or other materials brought to Cornell are stored and documented at PGRU to become part of a genetic repository. Preserved material can then be distributed to researchers or breeders for their work in improving the apple, according to Forsline.
Aldwinckle has been able to screen many of these trees for resistance to apple scab, fire blight, and cedar-apple rust, diseases that cause severe losses among cultivated apples.
"We've been evaluating this material for resistance to diseases for a number of years. We've found resistance in nearly every batch of seed we've brought back from Kazakhstan," said Aldwinckle.
Even more promisingly, the resistance seems to stem from many different genes.
"That's good because we can't rely on just one," he added.
All told, they've collected around 130,000 seeds from 900 sources, and 15 - 20,000 of these have been planted at Geneva or elsewhere.
The reason for their collecting, screening, documenting, and distributing of these trees is to incorporate some of their genes into commercial varieties. This could occur through conventional breeding or genetic engineering, according to Aldwinckle.
"We'll start making crosses next year [since] our trees started having flowers this year," said Luby, whose program is involved in breeding for disease resistance and cold hardiness.
"Preserving these apples allows us to preserve all the genes so that when new problems crop up in the future, we'll have solutions ready. These collections provide great insurance for the future -- against diseases, insects, and even global warming," Aldwinckle said.
During their trips, Aldwinckle and Forsline were disturbed by the extent to which they had observed development already endangering the trees in Kazakhstan. This added to there motivation.
"We'd like to see that the diversity of the apple is preserved for future generations," Aldwinckle said.
Forsline will give seeds of the Kazakhstan apples to anyone willing to grow them on their own land and report back to him on the results. According to him, to date he has received 20 requests and distributed about 100 seeds in this manner.