Three ‘Breakthrough Technology Awards’ for Plant Breeding: Phyllis Himmel, Maeli Melotto, and Allen Van Deynze

Graduate student Cristian Jacob, in Maeli Melotto’s lab, handling a genetically diverse population of lettuce plants contaminated with Salmonella enterica and E. coli 0157:H7.

Three people in the Department of Plant Sciences, UC Davis, received Breakthrough Technology Awards for Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Plant Breeding research and conference programs.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded 21 Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production competitive grants that will advance development of publicly available cultivars bred to improve the production efficiency, yield, sustainability, resilience, healthfulness, product quality, and value of U.S. agricultural plants while increasing farmer profitability and exports.

Participants in the 2018 Cucurbitaceae meetings. Phyllis Himmel is in the middle of the group.
Participants in the 2018 Cucurbitaceae meetings. Phyllis Himmel is in the middle of the group.

Phyllis Himmel

Phyllis Himmel and Allen Van Deynze received $10,500 for postdoc and student speaker support at the Cucurbitaceae 2018 Conference. Himmel is a program manager for the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis, and Van Deynze is research director for the center.

The main goal of the Cucurbitaceae Conference ( was to bring together cucurbit scientists from around the world for an in-depth conference exploring new frontiers of cucurbit research and development. The second goal was to provide opportunities for students and postdocs to develop presentation and professional skills, encourage learning experiences and promote careers in plant breeding, plant pathology, genetics and genomics.

“Our grant funded the participation of seven postdoc and graduate student speakers during the 2018 Cucurbitaceae meetings,” said Himmel. “Speakers were selected based upon their background, opportunity for professional exposure in their careers, and the relevance of their research topic for presentation.”

Maeli Melotto

Plant Sciences Professor Maeli Melotto, and researchers Allen Van Deynze and Michele Jay-Russell received $33,000 for the upcoming UC Davis conference “Breeding Crops for Enhanced Food Safety.”

“This project will enable connections among plant scientists, breeders, extension specialists, and food safety experts to discuss collaborative efforts and multidisciplinary approaches geared towards eradicating the occurrence of human pathogens in crop production systems,” said Melotto.

Healthy eating of fresh fruits and vegetables is part of an integrated strategy to decrease the risk of serious diseases. More than 9 million foodborne illnesses in the U.S. are estimated to be caused by major pathogens each year and 51 percent have been attributed to plant commodities.

The goal of the conference is to identify knowledge gaps and research priorities in this emerging field of breeding for crop safety as a step towards eradicating the occurrence of human pathogens on fresh fruits and vegetables. Recommendations moving forward will be developed in a white paper, which will be made available to audiences across disciplines.

Allen Van Deynze

Allen Van Deynze (research director, Seed Biotechnology Center, and associate director of the Plant Breeding Center, UC Davis) and Stephanie Walker (New Mexico State University) received $500,000 for the project “Breeding Green Chiles for Mechanical Harvesting.”

The goal of the project is to develop green chile peppers amenable to mechanical harvesting. The critical need is to reduce labor costs associated with harvesting for processed peppers, essential for sustainability of the U.S. industry and a growing market worldwide.

“Taking a page from the tomato industry, we are developing green jalapeño peppers that can be harvested directly without the pedicel or stem, a task that is currently done by hand,” said Van Deynze. “We are testing harvesters to co-develop our breeding materials and eventually release lines that can be harvested mechanically.”

The systems approach combines genomics, biology, plant breeding, and mechanical harvesting. The outcomes include improved germplasm and harvester settings for mechanical harvesting and DNA markers for associated traits such as destemming, determinacy and fruit quality to make pepper breeding more efficient.

(Article by Ann Filmer, Department of Plant Sciences, UC Davis)

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